I am American. I know where my grandparents were from, given that they either immigrated to America or were first-generation Americans. There is nothing exotic in my appearance to uncover, given that I’m most often referred to as having girl-next-door looks. Thus, the popular DNA tests never held much interest for me. What could I learn that I didn’t already know?
When my mom told me she had received her DNA results, my interest piqued just a little. Mom is Jewish. We are a displaced people. I expected the results to read “just Jew” and come accompanied with a knish and some mustard.
Instead, she received this exciting waltz through unknown history and was gifting nearly equal percentages of Ethiopian, Roma, Middle Eastern and eastern European Jew, with Turkish and Finnish roots popping up just to add a little flair and explain why we love baklava and pickled herring. Not together, mind you.
My mom studied her features with new clarity. Her eyes, her hair, her lips. It makes sense to me that my mom wanted to receive her genetic profile. For her whole life, she has been asked the same question: “What are you?” There was always something about her appearance that couldn’t quite be defined. Now she feels she has answers — which made me want answers. Could I be harboring something exquisite and distant inside me? What faraway sounds would come to my ear, what spices to my tongue after hearing the results?
My mom is my biological mother, so one might assume I already had at least 50% of my answer through her, but those results didn’t belong to me. I wanted my own genetic passport to the world.
Three weeks after spitting into a test tube, the results came in. I’m 53% European Jewish, nearly 30% English/Welsh, a tad German, a tad eastern European and 3% Irish/Scottish. Oh. Well, that sounds like... me. But it also doesn’t. It’s... blander.
When my paternal grandmother was alive, she carried on telling stories of her Scottish roots for six decades to her children and grandchildren. She emigrated from England after World War II to marry my American-war-hero grandfather. But her eyes lit up when she talked about her true origins in the Highlands. There were Scottish folktales and songs and stories. I was in college when my grandmother (after being confronted by a worker in the traveling Highland Games) admitted that we were not from Scotland after all. She’d always wished she were. Sixty years of lies down the drain. I knew I wasn’t going to show up as Scottish in my DNA. But what about Irish? My paternal grandfather was supposedly an Irish Catholic boy. There were Irish songs and Irish dancing and, most of all, Irish drinking. He never came for a visit without locating the Irish pubs. A proud, strapping Irish boy, my blue-eyed grandfather was!
Only 3% Irish/Scottish? We laughed at my grandmother when we discovered her heritage had been a long, elaborate lie. Had her husband’s been, as well?
My husband has always been told he has some Native American ancestry. His results showed zero traces to support that family mythology. They did, however, indicate that 1% of his origins are unknown. Could that mean he’s part extraterrestrial? Now that would be interesting!
Are we always striving to see ourselves as more interesting than we are? What is interesting? Surely, it varies intensely from person to person, culture to culture, experience to experience. Is “interesting” boiled down to just “not me”?
And what can this DNA truly speak to anyway? My “European Jewish” side entails a people who had no home and lived a thousand lives and stories that cannot be captured in a DNA test. On the other side, somewhere, perhaps, my ancestors of German or English descent lived in Ireland. Do my Kelly cousins no longer get to claim those songs, that heritage, because of a meager percentage?
We are made of the stories that come to us, by the culture our family provides. Then we move forward and choose how to keep the trail progressing. We don’t all get to know where we came from, but we can each pick where we’re going. What cultures and worlds can I come to know? To learn about? To adopt? To support?
And I don’t care what percentage you are, a Guinness with a potato knish would make a mighty fine meal.
Katiedid Langrock is author of the book “Stop Farting in the Pyramids.”