Travis Mackey knows all of his first cousins. He’s pretty sure, anyway.
So the 51-year-old Bennington resident was confused last summer when he saw the results of the genetic test kit his wife had given him for Father’s Day. Apparently, the test said, there was a man Mackey had never heard of who shared about 25 percent of his DNA.
“I thought there must have been a mistake,” Mackey said.
The man’s name was Alexander Bode. He lived in Miami. And he had also mailed his saliva to the California-based genetic testing company 23andMe, which analyzes customers’ DNA and provides information on health and ancestry.
Mackey reached out to Alexander via 23andMe’s website. Was Alexander adopted? Mackey asked. No, Alexander said. But his dad was.
And so began a series of exchanges that last month led Mackey to New York City, where he met 55-year-old Barrie Bode, his half-brother.
The brothers, along with their mother and Bode’s son, attended a reunion held in New York by 23andMe for users who found unknown relatives through the service. As personal genetic testing gains popularity, more people are discovering previously unknown branches of their family trees.
“Only in the 21st century could something like this have happened,” Barrie Bode said.
As he exchanged messages with Bode’s son, Mackey remembered that his mother had once told him that she’d given birth to a baby when she was 19 and had given the child up for adoption. He confirmed the baby’s birthday with Alexander, who then told his mother, Barrie Bode’s wife, that he might have found his uncle.
“He said, ‘Do you think dad would want to know about this?’ And she said, ‘Yes, of course,’ ” Bode said.
Bode, who lives just north of DeKalb, Illinois, had always been curious about his biological family. Back in the 1990s he had started trying to track them down. But with the Internet still in its infancy, he faced a daunting search. Plus, he said, he had concerns that many adopted children share.
“You’re worried that if you pursue your biological family through the traditional routes, you may open a can of worms,” he said. “You always have that fear that the person might not want you to find them.”
Bode’s son sent Bode’s email address to Mackey, and the two started sending messages back and forth. About a week later, they spoke on the phone for the first time.
Mackey, a business intelligence analyst for Great Plains Communications in Blair, was nervous that his brother might turn out to be a stuffy academic type. Bode is a professor of biological sciences at Northern Illinois University.
He shouldn’t have worried. As the conversation wore on, the brothers realized they had more in common than their genes.
They talked about how they grew up: Mackey in South Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska, Bode with his adoptive parents in Ferguson, Missouri. Both were raised by “strong North Dakota farm girls,” Bode said. Both grew up in close-knit families that valued a strong work ethic, Mackey said.
They talked about hockey. They found out they’re both into the outdoors.
“Our personalities just kind of fit together,” Mackey said. “We just had a really awesome conversation that first time.”
Mackey also put Bode in touch with their shared biological mother, Ida Pollock, who lives in Fremont. When Mackey told her he had found the child she gave up, she was shocked.
“It’s something you’ve been thinking about your whole life, and suddenly it’s the beginning of another story,” she said.
Inspired, Mackey wrote back to 23andMe and shared their story. The company responded, inviting him, Bode and their families to New York City for a reunion with six other families who had also found relatives through the genetic tests.
The stories roll in from all over, said Tracy Keim, vice president of marketing for 23andMe. Siblings meet siblings. Parents meet children. In one case, a pair of identical twin sisters from Korea, both adopted and brought to the U.S., discovered each other through genetic testing.
But the test is not without its pitfalls. The company’s terms of service warn users that “you may learn information about yourself that you do not anticipate ... e.g. your father is not genetically your father.” In 2014, 23andMe decided not to show DNA relatives by default on new users’ test results after concerns surfaced from families who were torn apart by troubling new information. Users now must opt in to see their genetic relatives.
But for Mackey and Bode, who met in person for the first time at the 23andMe reunion last month, everything went smoothly. Alexander came along. So did Pollock.
Every day since he was born, she had thought of Bode, she said. Meeting him, seeing for herself how he turned out, finally gave her a sense of closure.
“Every day of your life you think about that: ‘Did I make the right decision?’ ” she said. “I was glad I did after I met him and found out what kind of life he had. He had wonderful parents.”
The family toured the sights together, getting to know each other along the way. They saw a taping of “Megyn Kelly Today.” They walked through Central Park.
Bode marveled at his birth mother’s strength — Pollock, 74, kept pace for the entire exhausting walk through the city, he said.
With the reunion complete, the family has entered the next phase of coming together, Bode said. He and Mackey talk a couple of times a week. They have plans, eventually, to meet again, this time with the rest of their families.
It’s still sinking in for both men. Neither has ever had a brother before.
But they’re both glad they do now.
“I could totally see growing up with him,” Bode said.
“It was like we had been brothers our whole lives,” Mackey said. “He was everything that I could ever hope a brother could be.”