Roots

Roots

A while back a friend of mine shared that she had recently gotten her DNA tested to find out her genetic background. Thinking herself to be mostly Greek with dark skin and dark hair, she was shocked to find out that she had quite a lot of Irish blood dancing a little jig in her veins. We laughed over the idea that everybody kind of wants to be a little Irish, and now she can proudly wear the Kiss me, I’m Irish button.

I decided I was going to have this testing done myself. After all, I have a blood grandparent that I know nothing about. A big, fat, endless trove of possibilities there. My father once told me that he had started to trace back his family tree, and he ran into Pocahontas along the way but he wasn’t sure where she fit in. We’re related to Pocahontas?!  How cool is that?

So I began to dig. I tapped on the shoulder of a good friend of mine, knowing that he’s a total dork about family lineage and the only person I have ever known who can accurately identify all the first and second cousins once and twice removed and actually knows what it means. I gave him all the information that I had, and he began the hunt.

It wasn’t too long before he found the Pocahontas link. It was the Native American equivalent to the Kiss me, I’m Irish button. Kiss me, I’m totally related to Pocahontas.

Not so fast…

What we found out was that along her journey, a very white brother of my great-great-great (etc. etc.) whatever married Pocahontas’ sister. Those descendants are related to Pocahontas, while my part of the family tree enjoyed being at the wedding.  Still counts, right?

I didn’t think so either.

I did find some Native American roots, all .4% of them. According to the paperwork, this would mean I have at least one relative (most likely a three times great grandparent) who was 100% native.  This would be the unidentified woman in some of my grandfather’s old photos (his family took an extraordinary amount of photos for it being the late 1920s) of him as a child at the knee of a rather tough looking darker woman. His great grandmother, who he remembered nothing about except that she had very dark red skin. Maybe she knew Pocahontas.

What wasn’t surprising to me was the amount of German that runs through my veins. My grandmother was a first generation American as her parents were fresh off the boat. Her name was as adorably German as a name can be, Von included, but she Americanized it as soon as she could to better fit on the Baltimore Streets she called home. I often think of throwing her name into a book, or perhaps even using it as a pen name but part of me knows she’d be shaking her head… begging me to please not do that.

I think that it’s everyone’s hope to be a little more diverse than they think they are. I am far less than I thought I was, with 99.6% of me hailing from all North Western European countries. I can see why people in my family hold onto that one brother that married Pocahontas’ sister. It very well may be the most interesting thing that has ever happened to us.

So after the eight long week wait, I won’t lie, I was quite a bit disappointed with the lack of diversity in my genetic swimming pool. But then I focused on something the paperwork said (most likely to soothe disappointed vanilla people like myself): This is where your genetic background comes from, it is not at all, who you are or who your family is.

What that blood test didn’t tell me –

My great-grandfather was a Baltimore City police officer who had five children. They lived in Baltimore until he retired and bought a big farm house out in the country. A big farm house that I remember because he lived there until I was about seven. I loved that house, it seemed haunted to me because it was so big and drafty and old. Hide and seek was a whole different ball game there. My grandfather stayed in Baltimore, where among his many jobs, he was a pretty well known local country musician. In my living room sits a 1950 Gibson Guitar in pristine condition, once featured in a giant photo of my grandfather’s band as a window advertisement for the Gibson store in Baltimore in the late 50’s. While on stage singing in his beautifully baritone voice, he caught the eye of a young German woman. She was finally breaking free of a terrible marriage, and would be on her own with a little girl to take care of. It wasn’t long before he slid on a wedding ring, and a uniform to represent the US in the Korean War. He took his young family to Europe, as he served in France for a few years. They arrived back in the States just in time to welcome my mother into the world. Stories of this time in their lives were rarely spoken of, as my grandfather once told me, it was a time of war. But over the years, stories did unfold as trinkets of that time showed up in our day to day lives. Dishes in the china cabinet, hand painted in Paris. Christmas ornaments, blown glass from Germany. Postage from old friends, written completely in French. A pocket watch that has a bullet still lodged in it from World War II, saving the life of its owner and given to my grandfather after this man wanted to repay my grandfather for his kindness with “all the good luck I’ve ever had.” Spare change in an old purse they’d give me to play with, from some country in between.

My mother now lives a seemingly quiet life, enjoying a happy and healthy long marriage to her second husband, and being all up in her three kids and three grandchildren’s business. One would almost forget that she fell madly in love and married my father before she even finished high school, and if you play your cards right, she might just finish the story about the one time she almost got arrested.

And of course, there is my dear old Dad. My father is one of the most brilliantly minded people I know, and what I think I admire most about his smart mind is that he is aware of the fact that we are always learning. He’s a funny sort, who had a strong love for God, Rock and Roll, and bad dad jokes. He’s in construction now, building some of the East Coast’s most exclusive and premier Golf Courses. But you just never know about that unassuming guy digging that hole on the back nine.

In high school, he was such a delinquent that most of his teachers made him deals. Don’t come to class all year, but pass your tests. Done. His music teacher tapped on skill. Come in and give private lessons to those students struggling rather than come to class. So all through high school, he was teaching his friends how to play the piano and guitar. The amazing thing is, he never learned to read music. He has had an award winning career, and to this day, plays by ear. He too was a pretty big deal locally. Among his credentials, he won best keyboard player and best front-man several years in a row. One year it was a year where he didn’t play but a few months with his band before they were no longer together, and he still beat out all of his competition.

I’m not sure if it was for an anniversary or for a birthday, but one evening the frontman from Crack The Sky showed up to our house and serenaded my mother with She’s A Dancer. It boggles my mind to know that every band who was anyone in the late 70s and early 80s, if they rolled through Baltimore, chances are my Dad was their opening act. His stories of those days are few and far between, because who wants to tell their kid about the age of sex, drugs, and rock and roll,  but I often wonder what life was really like for him then. While chatting with him about this very subject, he ended one of his thoughts (that he didn’t fully share with me) with “Man, Stephenwolf, those dudes know how to party.”

These are the things that get lost, the things that don’t show up on a family tree or in a genetic test. The blood test will tell me that I have a German Grandparent, but it won’t tell me that one morning she found herself at the breakfast table in a world of trouble. Her father sat waiting for her, with the local sports section in hand, where she could clearly see a beaming image of herself hanging over the finish line in a photo finish at the Pimlico horse races on an afternoon that she should have been in school. Oops.

It makes me wonder, what my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will learn about me. I wonder if they will see me as their 99.6% average European ancestor, with nothing interesting to know. A Maryland girl, born and raised. Or will there be a story floating around, about how their great-grandmother once found herself lost in a small city in Thailand, went to the river and paid a local fisherman to boat her back to the town she was staying in. Or how among her belongings they will find a drivers license that looks a little strange, because it’s from Russia (and how that was the day where she whispered to her bodyguard “this is where we die in the book”). Perhaps the once she found herself almost penniless in Paris. How she had been to Japan six times, but never once made it out of the airport. How she flew to London once and had a three day adventure with one of her best friends in the world, and let her youngest child climb the fountain in front of Buckingham Palace and got stuck in a tiny elevator with too many strangers. Who knows, maybe it will be as simple as I am where the “good” cookie recipe came from. What stories will come from the trinkets and treasures that I gather in my life?

Blood may be what binds us, but it is the stories that weave the fabric of our lives. I’m going to pay a lot more attention to the stories that I tell my kids, and hopefully one day my grandchildren and if I am very lucky, great-grandchildren.

Among every story I ever come up with between now and then, what I tell them of my own life will be my most valuable works.

In that way, I guess that makes us all story tellers.

Here’s to hoping the story you tell is a good one.

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