Updated: Apr 29, 2019
By Julie Summers
This is the third post in a series about people who have discovered their Icelandic roots – or connected to them more deeply – later in life. Last time, I shared with you the story of Andrew Bendin, who discovered his Icelandic heritage through the power of social media while on a photography tour. Today’s story is about Kevin Johnson, who uncovered his birth parents’ identities – and a whole family he never knew he had – thanks to Icelandic Roots.
Kevin Johnson* had a happy childhood in rural Manitoba, playing hockey in the winters and visiting the family cabin near Gimli in the summers. He always knew he was adopted, and though he never felt out of place, he had a healthy curiosity about his family of origin. Around the age of 18, Kevin received some basic information about his birth parents, including the fact that his birth mother was of Icelandic origin. His father was from West Germany, and the two had never married. By the time Kevin was born, his parents were separated, and his mother, 46 years old and unprepared to raise a child on her own, chose to put him up for adoption in order to give him the best chance at a happy life. Back in the early 1990s, adoption records were sealed, and Kevin’s search for more information about his birth parents quickly hit a dead end. But suddenly, Kevin’s trips to the Gimli area, rich with Icelandic history, took on a whole new meaning as he found himself wondering if anyone around him might be a relative.
The first major turning point in Kevin’s search for his roots was deciding to undergo DNA testing. Initially, Kevin’s interest in his family of origin stemmed primarily from a desire to uncover any relevant medical history, something he’d never been able to provide to doctors. But what began as a search for genetic facts quickly turned into something deeper. Just weeks after mailing in his sample, Kevin found himself connected to over a thousand DNA matches, many of whom turned out to be third and fourth cousins with connections to Iceland. Kevin began contacting several of these newfound relatives. The first to respond was Erla Ívarsdóttir of Reykjavík. Kevin and Erla wrote back and forth for a year, until she succumbed to cancer. Kevin hadn’t even known Erla was ill, but he suspects their correspondence was a source of encouragement to her during those difficult times. And Erla was certainly an encouragement to Kevin; it was at her urging that he ultimately contacted Icelandic Roots.
Since Kevin had still been unable to pinpoint his parents’ identities, Icelandic Roots founder Sunna Furstenau encouraged him to write a blog about his story. Having the post shared on the Icelandic Roots website meant that Kevin’s story immediately reached several thousand Icelandic Roots subscribers. A couple months later, having nearly forgotten about the post, Kevin received a call from Sunna. A man named Joe had read Kevin’s story and believed himself to be Kevin’s cousin. Soon, the men were having a conversation that completely changed Kevin’s life. “I went from knowing basically nothing to knowing everything in 20 minutes,” he says. “That’s the power and the magic of what Icelandic Roots did for me.”
The conversation with Joe convinced Kevin that he had finally identified his birth mother, and the connection was formally confirmed in 2015, both through the release of Manitoba adoption records and through DNA results. Sadly, it was too late for Kevin to meet his birth mother, who had passed away in 2010. But long-lost relatives have told him all about her. She was born in Canada, as was her mother, while her father emigrated to Canada as a young child. Kevin did, however, have the chance to cultivate a relationship with his birth father for nearly two years before his death in 2016. Over the last few years, Kevin has met dozens of relatives and amassed piles of photos and genealogical information about his ancestry.
So how does it feel to discover a second family later in life? Kevin says the experience is somewhat similar to the feeling of acquiring a family of in-laws through marriage, though perhaps with a deeper soul connection. He harbors no resentment and believes his birth mother made the right choice putting him up for adoption. Uncovering the truth about his birth parents does not challenge his upbringing or replace the family that raised him, but it has enriched his life and given him a fuller sense of self.
*All names that appear in this story are pseudonyms.
Thanks to Kevin for sharing his story with us. Keep your eyes out for the next post in this series, where we’ll talk to Icelandic Roots volunteer Doreen “Kristy” Marston about what it’s like to be a genealogy detective helping people like Andrew, Kevin, and the Marcelluses solve family history mysteries. And if you need help unraveling a genealogy mystery or have your own story to share, please contact us here.
Julie Summers is a translator, Snorri Program alum, and Icelandic Roots volunteer who has been living in Iceland since 2014. Last year, she received an Icelandic Roots scholarship in support of her studies at the University of Iceland. She is currently working toward a master’s in translation studies.