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Although the advent of the Internet has made tracking ancestors a lot easier, it may take years of detective work and pounding the pavement to find the clues that finally unlock the door.
After his mother died, Barker's father remarried.
"My birth mother's family lived back east and I lost track of them totally — I never heard anything," he added. "All I knew was that I was named after my mother's brother, John Elliot Cumming and that my mother's birth name was Cumming."
When Barker's stepmother died in 2003, his oldest son, Michael, chided his father for knowing so little about his birth mother.
"He obviously wasn't happy with that and went back to Ottawa," chuckled Barker. "I got a package on my birthday from him and it had my mother's birth certificate, my mother's and my dad's marriage licence, and a whole bunch of names he'd been searching on the Internet under the surname Cumming."
His son recommended contacting a woman in Los Angeles who sent Barker a package with 85 pages of people named Cumming.
Barker bought an ancestry computer program and started entering names. It took about a year but his mother's side was still poorly represented.
"I didn't have any warm bodies to talk to," he said.
Then he found a connection to a family named Basterfield, who turned out to be a University of Saskatchewan chemistry professor who'd married his mother's sister.
And, because it was an unusual name, that led him to a family named Sherk in Hamilton, Ont., and eventually to a surviving relative who was living in nearby Milton.
So in the summer of 2006, Barker and his wife set out on their "Roots Trip."
It took them to Saskatoon, where they found the Cumming family home, then to Tantallon and on to Milton.
"When we got to Ontario to visit my newly-found cousin there, I downloaded and printed the picture I got in Tantallon," said Barker. "I said, "– Look, what I've got. I've got it with the names there." And she said, 'Thank God,' and she took an original out of her bin. She had the same picture but with no names."
Barker's cousin recommended he visit her aunt in Sacramento, Calif.
"We were going on to visit Martha's relatives on Long Island, so I thought that coming back, maybe we'd take Interstate 40 and come back through Sacramento," he added.
The Sacramento aunt asked Barker if he knew of the Cumming relatives living in Vancouver. One of them, Ian Cumming, is a first cousin.
"It turned out he was a professor of electrical engineering at UBC and he was teaching in the building across the street from the building that I was teaching in," laughed Barker. "And neither of us knew the other was there. It was just amazing."
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