Sunday, March 1, 2015

The DNA of My Story

It may seem a little late to be writing about Christmas presents, but I have a good reason.  My husband really hit it out of the park this year with my gifts.  I'm going to write about one in particular because I just received the other half of it this week.

When I was younger, I believed that people are the captains of their own destinies.  I wanted this to be true because it means we can be whatever we want.  When people asked me about my heritage, it kind of bugged me.  When someone bragged about their heritage, it really bugged me. Why should it matter?  It didn't make sense to me why anyone would be proud of where people were from who were long since gone.  I was a firm believer in the here and now and that you are your own person.  I didn't want the credit or blame for what my ancestors had done.

Although I do still believe the choices you make are a huge determination of your fate, I've changed my stance a bit as I've gotten older.  I still don't want the credit or blame, but I'm more curious now about the how and why of how I'm here.  My story.  Gaaaa, if there's anything I love, it's a good story!  For the last couple of years, I've become more and more interested in ancestry.  I first started watching Who Do You Think You Are? on TLC last year and was intrigued.  If you haven't seen it, a different celebrity guest stars each week.  The show has experts and uses to help the weekly guest trace his or her family back to different points of history.  It's somewhat contrived, but I found myself sucked in to some of the stories just the same. Then just about six months ago, I discovered Finding Your Roots on PBS, which I like even better.  It's not currently running, but if you get a chance to catch the new season, do it.  The format is different in some ways, but it usually focuses on three somewhat famous people who have something in common. Their ancestry is traced and explained by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Man, that cat is cool.  And so is his show.

Although both my paternal and maternal grandparents lived into their nineties, I had no idea where any of my family came from before we ended up in America.  I had asked my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother at different times in my life, but neither of them were sure either.  They both had some vague guesses, but no one had any particulars.  France was mentioned, as was Ireland, but nobody knew anything for certain.  I went to's website and armed with little more than my grandparents' names and birthdays, tried to figure it out.  Although I found my grandparents and even my great grandfather in different records like military and census forms, I still wasn't able to go back any further.  And the more I watched these two shows about ancestry, the more I began to wonder.  I started to ruminate about a book I had read a couple of years ago, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell,  Gladwell contends that there's no such thing as a self-made or stand alone person.  And I wondered more.

Which brings me to the part of a Christmas gift I got this week.  On Christmas Day, Dan gave me the gift of having my DNA analyzed.  No, I am not kidding. will send you a kit to analyze your saliva for a mere $99 and tell you what parts of the world your family originated in.  I had seen this on their website and had mentioned to him how much I would like to do this.  He told me to go for it.  I kept thinking one of these days I would bite the bullet and shell out the $100, but I never did.  So he actually did it for me and gave me the kit for Christmas.  He even got a $20 discount because he bought it on Cyber Monday.  I love that even was having a sale on Cyber Monday.

The kit came with a little tube for me to spit in.  Ewwww. Gross. Okay, so then I had to register my test and mail the tube back in the prepaid package.  Next came the hardest thing. I had to wait.  I am not known for my patience in most circles.

I checked online many times in the next few weeks, but the website just kept informing me my test was being analyzed. I had to admit that a couple of times I had a hard time believing this was really going to work. Then on this Wednesday morning, my information was up.

My results were 99% European.  I was completely expecting this since I am the whitest white girl in terms of my appearance.  But a further breakdown showed I am 29% Western European (France/Germany, Switzerland), 28% Scandinavian, 23% Irish, 9% British, and 9% Italian/Greek.  Just like that.

My mom had told me she thought her maiden name was French, so I think that's the Western European part.  I was most excited, however, about the connection to Scandinavia and Ireland.  I had told my brother I was betting that we were from Viking stock.  I even read the book, The Vikings, by Robert Wernick in January in preparation.  I was right!  As for the Irish part, I've just always had a feeling.  Maybe it's the Catholic girl in me.

This was one of the most thoughtful and interesting gifts I've ever received. And it truly was a gift in the grandest meaning of the word.  It's a gift to have this information that years ago would have been impossible to obtain.   When I told people about it and how I was waiting for my results, they were fascinated.  Almost everyone expressed interest in doing this themselves. 

As I was putting out my decorations for St. Patrick's Day this year (and yes, I've always done this, and now it seems apparent why), I found myself wanting to know more about the country and its history.  So I plan to do some more reading about Ireland.  And Scandinavia.  And France.  They're all important to me now. I don't stand alone, no matter how badly I wanted to when I was younger. For better or worse, my story only came about because of hundreds of other stories.

As Malcolm Gladwell notes in Outliers, "It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Joy, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, 'I did this, all by myself.'  Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience.  But they don't.  They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy.  Their success is not exceptional or mysterious.  It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky - but all critical to making them who they are.  The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all."


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