Imagine finding out who your biological mother is in an email from a genetics company.
That’s exactly what happened to 23-year-old Antonia Picardi, who had signed up for 23andMe and received an email, out of the blue, saying, “We predict this is your mother.”
“I opened the app and it showed me this tiny little photo of a strange woman and says it’s my mother,” Picardi said.
“I threw my phone on the floor.”
Picardi grew up in Calistoga, with an older brother, both raised by their single mother. Picardi’s dad passed away when she was 5 years old.
Later, she attended college where she studied zoology and developed an interest in genetics.
Curious about her own DNA, Picardi signed up for 23andMe, a personal genetics service based in Mountain View.
How it works is they send you a kit and you send them a sample of your spit. Six to eight weeks later, they send you your genotype results by email.
“I didn’t think anything big would come from it. I just wanted to see what it would reveal,” Picardi said.
Picardi had always believed she was Scandinavian from her mother’s side, and Italian from her father’s side of the family.
Weeks later Picardi received the results. She had Italian in her DNA, that was for sure, but only about 1 percent was Scandinavian. Everything else was a mix of British, Irish, German and other heritages.
“How was that possible?” she asked.
Perplexed by the results, she went to her mother, Allene Hansen, for answers. That’s when she found out her parents had engaged an egg donor and she was conceived through in vitro fertilization.
“I’m very similar to my mom, personality-wise we’re very similar, and I never thought otherwise. I didn’t really process what she said at first. Then I just froze. It was a super-weird day. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Who am I?’ Then I went through a period where I was mad about it, but it was more shock,” Picardi said.
Allene Hansen Picardi and John Picardi, Antonia’s parents, already had a son who was conceived naturally. Because Hansen was in her late 40s when they decided to have another child, they went to an egg donation clinic. And they decided not to tell anyone, even family.
“We thought we would tell Antonia at some point. But John was very concerned that both sides of the family might feel differently about her. We were very worried about that,” Hansen said.
And it turned out there was really never a good time to tell her. First her father died, then came the teen years.
“Adolescence is a very touchy time. I thought about it after high school, but then she was entering a whole new world. And there was never any medical reason to tell her,” Hansen said.
Weeks after the egg donor revelation, Picardi received even more shocking news.
23andme has a feature that it notifies customers when it finds those who have varying percentages of identical, shared DNA segments, theoretically meaning that there’s a relation between you and that person.
“You can get tons of those. Usually those notifications would be kind of useless for me, telling me someone 500 miles away had 0.1 percent similar DNA,” Picardi said.
However, she was on her lunch break at Sam’s Social Club, where she works as a hostess, when the news came: “You share 50 percent DNA with Melissa. We predict Melissa Rost is your mother.”
The egg donor
As a 21-year-old woman donating her eggs, Melissa Rost’s intentions were to be able to help infertile couples conceive, and wished for the child to have a wonderful life.
She now lives in Orange County and has four children. She joined 23andMe, she said, because her relatives are scattered and didn’t know her genetic makeup. Finding Antonia was not on her radar.
Rost donated twice, and “Never once did I think I’d find one of my egg donors,” she said.
Like Picardi, Rost received a message from 23andMe out of the blue that there was an almost 50 percent match. It predicted that Picardi was her daughter.
“It was quite a shock. I was speechless. It had never crossed my mind. It took me a good while to process it,” she said.
The 23andMe kit does come with a warning that some findings may be shocking, Rost said.
Still, Rost struggled what to do with the information.
“I went ‘round and ‘round. I lost sleep over it. I was very torn. I didn’t want to blow her world up.”
Meanwhile, one afternoon, Picardi decided to check and see what was new from 23andMe.
“I absolutely was in shock and disbelief when I saw ‘Melissa Rost — 49.9 percent similar DNA, we predict this woman is your mother.’ I dropped my phone and started panicking,” she said.
After the initial shock, Picardi became curious about who the strange woman could be, and decided she wanted to contact her. She wanted to know if there were any health issues she should be aware of, and also “I was anxious, hoping they were a good person.”
Picardi messaged Rost through the website and Rost responded, providing her personal email address and phone number.
They messaged back and forth for some time and decided to meet.
Antonia and Melissa meet
Picardi and her boyfriend drove down to Seal Beach on July 9 to meet Rost at a Mexican restaurant.
“It was exciting and scary. But when I saw her I knew without a doubt it was her,” Rost said. “There was an instant pull on my heart string.”
The feeling was mutual.
“I had to try really hard not to cry,” Picardi said. ‘I could immediately see the similarity and all these things I’d never been able to see before. And then she said, ‘What do you want to know?’ Then we started talking and talking and you couldn’t really get us to shut up.”
It turns out Rost is very healthy and longevity runs in the family.
The two also found out they have a lot in common. Both like puzzle games and play the same online word games.
“It’s so weird, we both have the same average score. She has terrible eyesight, I have terrible eyesight. We’re also the same exact height, and have kind personality traits,” Picardi said.
At one point in the conversation they said exactly the same thing at the same time.
“We gave each other a high-five,” Rost said. “There are some eerie similarities.”
Picardi was immediately welcomed into the family and extended family.
“They were sweet and so kind. It was like, ‘You’re one of us now.’ It’s not quite like family but kind of. Obviously I didn’t grow up with them. But I could see them being like best friends. People I immediately clicked with and look like,” Picardi said. “It’s a relief that all went well. So much could have gone in different ways.”
Rost said she is “dying to meet Allene” but the ball is in her court. “It’s for them to take the lead.”
Hansen said she is also excited to meet Rost, sometime in the future.
“It’s been a surreal couple of months, Picardi said. “I feel like my life is a Lifetime movie.”