It all started so innocently. Curiosity is a gateway to becoming a chronic Ancestry addict, chasing down roots and unheard of relatives. If that wasn’t bad enough, along comes DNA testing. Somewhere along the stages of ancestry dependence, circles of people pop up, who may or may not have bloodlines to you. Cool. But I have enough trouble keeping up with relatives I know.
Whoever got me started on this particular obsession, it’s on you.
Then again, DNA reports give a handy heads up about sneaky diseases waiting to snag you. To be fair, there were some scary sounding ones that I may have dodged the bullet on, so there’s that. Anyway, I heard enough commercials and friends’ excitement about the hunt for random family members that I thought I’d give it a shot, so here I am. That was 5 years ago and since then, I’ve dropped in and out, spending hours tooling around the digital ancestor graveyard. Hey, who doesn’t want to know if they should be wearing a kilt or lederhosen, right?
Five days before my husband died, he gave me two birthday gifts, both of which I must have ‘hinted’ about. One was a new iPad to replace my 7 year old model; the other an Ancestry DNA test kit. Unfortunately, by the time I spit in the tube, dropped it in the mail and got back the results — my man was gone. No one would have laughed harder than he when, unlike my lifetime denial that I was anything but Italian (and a tiny bit German), the results showed I was also — Irish. Wait, what?
Once you catch the ancestry bug, it’s hard not to be hooked. Though, to be fair, it’s too pricey for me to be a lifer. I pop in and out, getting a heritage high whenever I find one person who leads to another and another. But, you do need to curb your enthusiasm. In your haste to populate your tree, it’s easy to throw in a few Waldos that don’t belong there. When your tree suddenly blooms like you showered it with Miracle-Gro, there might be a few misfit branches don’t fit the profile. That can take the edge off congratulating your inner detective!
Another thing I discovered, much to my ignorant shock, is that DNA is not duplicated exactly in siblings. That was made irritatingly clear when my sister gleefully sent me her DNA results. Hey, how could her Italian roots be higher than mine. We’re SISTERS, for goodness sake and I could have sworn we have the same parents. At least I think we do. Still, even though I don’t want to see her happy dance about hitting the Italian genes jackpot, it’s still cool we can both play Indiana Jones for our family history.
Finding your grandparents’ marriage license or a news clipping about some great uncle’s drunken spree is interesting to be sure. But, no matter how many cute little leaves pop up, alerting me to new possible matches, none have exactly made a celebrity hall of fame. Until I find that I’m directly descended from Marie Antoinette or maybe the Medicis, it’s become a little same-same. Yet, when I find I can trace a blood line back to the 1700’s, I still admit to a moment of manic glee. My kids are less than impressed. They are too busy living in the real world of grade school sports and Pinewood Derbys to think or care about long dead relatives. And they would be right…right?
Do you think it’s weird that death certificates intrigue me? There are things to be found there, too. Odd to see that what we refer to today as cancer might have been ‘troubles’, or the nebulous name given to organ failure something easily identifiable today. When I look at ship passenger lists, it kind of makes you wonder how your ancestor survived in steerage when you can hardly imagine surviving a cruise without a balcony. Those who came before us must have had a strong stomach and a lot more sheer determination. Of course, it could have been just plain survival from poverty, prejudice or both. Either way, they still had a boatload of guts.
I am mostly humbled when I see the breadth of my family tree. No royalty or celebs in the mix but they made up for it with courageous sailings to a new world, and shortened life spans full of struggle. Entire lifetimes spread their connections across my computer screen; whole lives and generations born and gone in the past. All the great-great-great grandparents, uncles, kids once alive as we are and now just a ‘leaf’ on my tree. Been there, done that – gone. Different locations. Different continents. Different languages but all in the process of living as best they could. And what keeps drawing me back to a world long gone are the stories behind the names I long to uncover. I can’t help but think that all of my ancestors are not so different from yours — unless of course, yours DID include Marie Antoinette.
Your family tree can also be a metaphor for saying ‘life is short’ (see a theme here?) and, for some of our ancestors, it was a lot shorter than those living today will be. We are not possessed by the dead leaves in our tree but they sure remind us that we are all connected, in one way or another. Eventually, every one of us will have listings under both born — and died. The trick is to hold that shining middle ring with both hands today. Savor every minute now because mortality is the only given.
Grab another leaf on your tree, do your family happy dance and tell anyone who asks — the ancestors made you do it.