I tend to be the sort of person who looks to the future rather than the past. But when some good friends of mine did their DNA test several months ago I had to admit a curiosity. Then when one of them discovered an unusual family link, I couldn’t help but wonder if mine might contain something unexpected as well. So with some casual curiosity, I signed up my husband and myself for the process. What did I learn? And is it worth the time, money and effort? Maybe yes, maybe no.
It turns out that some people are obsessed by their family tree. An article in Salon Magazine claims that Genealogy may indeed be “the second most popular American hobby after gardening and the second most visited category of Web sites after pornography.” My interest doesn’t run nearly that deep! After all, I have no children so there is no linkage to consider beyond my own. The truth is, while my parents were alive I took my ancestry for granted. But now that they’re gone, I feel somewhat disconnected to my past and those who’ve come before me. Plus, now that I can no longer question my parent’s first-hand knowledge, the search seems somehow more relevant.
The process is easy these days. Pay your money online and within a week or so you receive your kit. Send in a sample of saliva and then wait for your results. While you wait, email prompts encourage you to begin working on your family tree. Why not? I considered the process to be a mini-mind quiz to see what I could remember. Fortunately, the Internet makes the process far easier than traveling to distant locations to search the micro-fish records held by local jurisdictions. Similar to filling in a crossword puzzle, feelings of reward and accomplishment made the search for forgotten connections more interesting. I now have a better idea why so many people become addicted.
What did my results reveal? From the time I was a child I knew that my father was a full-blooded German whose parents immigrated from Russia before he was born. I expected a majority of German ancestry but countries on the report aren’t broken out that specifically. Instead my largest ethnicity estimate of 44% comes from what is called, “Europe West” which includes Germany and France and several countries in the vicinity. And although my German Grandparent’s family immigrated to Russia prior to moving to America, that regional influence was only 7%. My only unexpected surprise came from the knowledge that I was likely 21% Scandinavian, and 16% Irish. Plus, a very low probability link comes from the Mid-East.
My husband Thom’s information was even less exciting. He too was aware of his father’s German background and also knew that his mother’s family was Swedish. His “Europe West” Ethnicity came in at 42%, while Scandinavia was 35%. He had been told he had a “bit ‘o Irish” in him, and at 9% that’s about it. Background with Great Britain was 8%. Apparently, no skeletons exist in either one of our family trees.
So why bother? While I am content having my curiosity satisfied, I must admit the unexpected satisfaction I have found while putting together my family tree. According to the website: Who Do you Think You Are.com, less than 44% of us even know the name of our grandparents—let alone the names of our great-grandparents. I could barely remember my father’s mother, Anna Margarethe Pfeif because she died when I was only nine and we didn’t live nearby. All I remember of her was a perpetually-frowning, wrinkled old woman who never learned to speak a word of English. After she died I didn’t miss her for a second.
But during the last couple of days my admiration for her has deepened. Anna immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1913 at the age of 30 to escape some of the hardships put on German settlers in Russia. With three young children at her side, and a husband who had been wounded in a Russian war prior to the journey, they (along with 2,500 others) booked 3rd Class Passage on a ship named SS Neckar. Visuals from the movie Titanic and the people crammed together on the lower decks of a ship come to mind.
Once they landed at Ellis Island they headed to Wisconsin where a daughter, Lydia was born, and on then to Nebraska where another daughter, Marie joined the family. Eventually, they moved to a small northeastern town in the state of Colorado where my father made his appearance. She gave birth to him at 46! Dad’s father, George died a few years later when Dad was seven. That left Anna with a mix of nine boys and girls. Somewhere along the way, two of her sons died. The product of a strict Lutheran sect, she refused to learn any other language except German—and read nothing but the Bible—in German of course! It’s no wonder she wasn’t particularly cheerful.
Unfortunately, my father was the youngest in his family and at this point, all of his brothers and sisters have passed away as well. From what I can tell, his parent’s journey reads like something from Dr. Zhivago and Grapes of Wrath. But I’ll never know the details because there is no one left to ask. We lost touch with his side of the family years ago, and I’m already hitting roadblocks after my brief search into ancestry available for free online.
I do know more about my Mother’s family so there are still some links to check out. But what I’m discovering is a sense of connection with the past that I’ve discounted for much of my life. Many of us assume that we know our parents pretty well, and maybe even our grandparents. Yet the story of their life, their dreams, and their hopes remain a mystery filled with hardships and joys that we can only imagine. Guessing at the strength of character and the perseverance that my forebears needed to just survive is humbling. If anything, it reminds me to be incredibly grateful for all they accomplished just for me to have my time here on Earth.
Did the DNA search help me to figure out more of who I am? Probably not. I am already pretty self-reflective so I don’t see that changing. But I am aware that there is current research into epigenetics that says we may inherit emotional experiences from our ancestors along with the biological markers that influence our DNA as well. If that is true, the strength and resilience I take for granted may likely have come from my ancestors. And who knows where I got my optimism? Plus, I imagine for anyone who is adopted or uncertain about their former relatives, a DNA search could be even more revealing. Actor Don Cheadle said about his DNA results: “You start feeling more grounded when you can reach back and go … ‘This is who I am all the way back.’”
A big part of SMART Living is taking the time on a regular basis to remember all the good we have in our lives and my brief journey into my ancestry is reminding me of that in a big way. Obviously it doesn’t take a DNA test to do that, but however a person gets there, it is beneficial to remember that none of us got to where we are without those who came before us. I’m also reminded of the open-door policy of our country that allowed so many of my ancestors to immigrate to our country. Regardless of how it is triggered, it is always SMART to remember to say “Thank You” to all who came before us.
Your turn: So have you done a DNA test for yourself? What did you find and was it SMART to do it? Please share in the comments below.