I was brought up believing a different family history
As soon as I got my DNA results in I messaged my mom. We had to talk. You see, my Dad’s side of the family pride themselves on being Italian. We grew up with the tradition of homemade ravioli on Christmas and my great-grandma even had a sign on the garage door saying ‘Parking for Italians Only’. When I got my results back I caught my breath at just how little Italian I was — just 2%. I felt sick to my stomach.
A little background on how I got here though first. Off and on through the years I’ve delved into my family history, fascinated with the stories and lineages of generations long past. As an American there’s no place where my family has been more than a couple hundred years — I think this is why Americans in general are so drawn to finding ties back to the ‘Old Country’. Knowing where my family comes from gives me an identity. It’s part of how I define myself.
So for my Christmas present last year I asked Josh to buy me an AncestryDNA test. It was something I’d always wanted to try and a present that I’d never forget. On the 25th of December I opened my gift knowing full well what it was but still squealing with delight.
It took about six weeks from the time I spit into a plastic tube until the time I received my results back via Email. During that time I got regular updates letting me know that my sample had been received, was being processed, etc. It was hard to wait but I understood they were busy — they sent me an Email telling me so. It seems that I wasn’t alone in getting a DNA test for the holidays.
Seeing my Results
I nearly jumped out of my chair when I spotted my results in my inbox. I opened it, followed the link, and before long I was looking at a map of Europe with my ethnicities and percentages listed along the side. The first thing that struck me was how British it said I was — nearly 70%? And what on earth was going on with that Eastern Europe thing? Or traces of Middle Eastern and Jewish genes?
I mentioned before that my dad’s side prides themselves on being Italian but my mom’s side prides themselves in being Dutch. Sure there were smatterings of Scottish, Swedish, and German in there too but 70% British? I must have been accidentally switched at birth! Despite the fact that my brother and I look like twins there must have been a mix up. More panicking.
Genes don’t Lie
It took me a week to calm down and realize that genes don’t lie. AncestryDNA didn’t rig my results because I live in Britain and my Mom is my Mom and my Dad is my Dad. Still, I kept looking at the percentages and countries and trying to map them out against what I knew. After a while I started to understand.
We define ourselves based on nationality but our country of origin is more about culture and less about genes. For example, a friend here on the Isle of Man claims to be 50% American. That makes me laugh because for me being American isn’t an ethnicity. Taking that thought further I know Germans whose family come from Poland. I know a British woman whose family comes from Jamaica and another whose dad is Swedish and mom Filipino. We live in a multicultural world now, but immigration and intermarriage has been going on for millennia.
That can also help explain a little of Ancestry.com’s breakdown of what ‘British’ genes are. They say that that though primarily located in Britain, they can also be found in other countries — including northern Italy. This gene thing is complicated.
The Test opens up Tantalizing Questions
I realize now that all of this time my family has been carrying down identities and traditions from only one part of our story. Everyone who married into that story adopted the stronger customs and the next generation took them on too. Over time, the side stories and lineages have been forgotten. After all, the only “Italian” member of my family is my great-grandmother and I know little about her father’s family and nothing about her mother’s side.
The AncestryDNA test has opened up more questions than it answered and I’m eager to find out more. More about where all of those Eastern European genes came in and what link do I have to West Asia. Most of all I want to know more about my British heritage. My silent 70%.
Reconnecting with a long-lost Relative
Through the same service that offers the test I connected with a distant family member. An older woman who I’m related to from my Dad’s side – she even has an Italian last name. We got to chatting through Ancestry.com and then exchanged Emails and wrote to each other that way. Then she said that she had some things that she thought I’d like to have and asked me for my address. Some photos she said, and something that belonged to my great-great-grandfather.
I can’t explain the feeling of receiving a box filled with mementos of family long gone. Family I never knew. Family with English descent. That’s right — even though my long-lost relative has an Italian last name it’s actually hers by marriage.
A Tie to England
That side of the family turned out to descend from my great-great-great-grandfather, who was Dutch, and a long line of marrying locals from New England and then across the United States. I have photos, letters, and even my great-great-grandfather’s shaving razor (don’t ask me how that got through in the post).
I pored over the letters again today reading about that grandfather and his immediate relatives. The hardships that they faced living in ramshackle cabins, and eking out a living mining, trapping, and farming. They were tough people who grew their own potatoes, built their own homes, and made a way for themselves in the American wilderness. I might have never gotten to know who they were if it weren’t for the Ancestry.com connection. The photos in this piece are some of the ones that were sent to me.
My Friends have Similar Stories
I’ve been talking with friends about my experience and am astonished at how many have had their DNA tested too. Not only that, but every one of them was floored by their results. Two were brought up being told that they had Native American ancestry — turns out that neither of them do. A blogger friend today spoke of getting her results back fully expecting them to be 50% Korean and 50% African American. She had the shock of her life when she found out she was a quarter Japanese and 14% Northern European. Another Caucasian friend found out that she’s 1% African.
I’m quite sure that most people who have their genes tested will have similar experiences. It goes back to the idea of family culture and hearsay family lineages but your ethnic heritage can also be diluted by romanticism and history. War, racism, and family scandal no doubt play their parts too.
Discovering your Family
If I could go back and have my genes tested again, would I? Absolutely. I feel like lost pieces of a puzzle have been returned and I want to know more. I want to ask my oldest relatives if they have any more stories and then try to follow up on them to find out more about the people who make me ME. There’s a story in our genes that doesn’t lie and can do nothing more than help you to understand more about your family’s history. I think it’s also a fascinating way to see how we all fit into this wonderfully diverse human planet. Each of us is a unique melting-pot, and all it takes is a test to discover our own personal recipe.
If you’re interested in having your own test done, you can purchase the AncestryDNA Test here.