A few years ago, some time after I did DNA testing to find out my dogs’ breeds, I sent in my own DNA sample (to a different site) to find out my own breeding. The only surprise was that there were no surprises: I am exactly as advertised on both sides of my lineage. I put up a family tree with roughly four names in it and then forgot about it.

Last September I got a message from someone who appears to be related to me, with some pretty detailed information about my maternal grandmother’s immediate relations. I ignored it for several months, because once upon a time when I was in junior high I answered the phone and the man on the other end asked to speak to Darcy (my sister) and I told him she was away at college and he asked if she was staying in Charlottesville (which was where she was) for the summer, and then he asked if my mother Dorrie was still working at the Renwick, and he asked after my father John and how the real estate business was at Chatel Real Estate, and then he said “Do you fuck?” so I have forty-odd years of trust issues with strangers who know a lot of details about my family.

But eventually I decided that not every stranger with a lot of details about my family is a creep, even on the internet, so I responded, and I’ve been having a lovely conversation with – hang on a minute while I go look up first and second vs once- or twice-removed cousins again – my second cousin, who has a much better knowledge of our family and also a much better memory for those things than I have. I know almost all of the names but have forgotten most of the relationships, and somehow it slipped my mind that all of my great aunts and uncles with names like Toddy and Kitty and Sweedie and Appie and Nanie had more regular given names, and that even some of the names that didn’t sound like nicknames were (Pete’s given name was Nathaniel, for instance). As someone who has a name that isn’t a nickname but sounds like one, I appreciate this.

My sister Darcy was the one who would have known all of these family facts. I would have loved to hear a conversation between her and this particular cousin, tracing our family back who knows how many generations. I can’t hold up my end of the conversation very well but I am enjoying it, and I feel a little like I am talking to my sister again.

For this and many reasons, I’ve been thinking about my grandmother (Dutch or Dutchie, born Frances) and the stories I wish I could hear again and listen to differently this time, and the things I’d like to ask her. Thinking about that also got me thinking about my mother, my father, my aunt, my sister – the people whose stories I can no longer listen to. I think of the questions I wish I could ask them, or that I wish I had thought to ask them. In my family, most of these people did not tell a lot of stories or answer a lot of direct questions, so some of this wishful thinking includes wishing that they had been different people, or that I had been a different person, or that we had been a different family.

In the absence of a do-over with any of my family members, I’ll do my best to pay attention to the ones that remain when they have something they want to tell me. It may not matter much in the grand scheme of things if anyone is left who knows that Gene was the third brother or that every one of my relations named Frances chose to go by their middle name, but it makes me feel better to try to be one of those people. If it meant enough to someone I loved for them to tell it to me, then it can be one of the ways I remember them and love them still.

6 thoughts on “Ancestry

  1. “I sent in my own DNA sample (to a different site)” sent me into hysterics. I’m also impressed with the giant hair bows on the young ladies. I enjoyed this piece and feel like I know you a bit better, which is always a joy.


    • I’ve been seeing those enormous hair bows my whole life and yet they amaze me every time. And I feel the same when you write non-fiction pieces, much as I enjoy and admire your fiction.


  2. Those photos! I remember them well, and even some of the stories that went with them.
    I so feel you. I stand on the edge of the Changing of the Generational Guard, my (almost 92) dad’s brain jumble and my (almost 87) mom’s Alzheimer’s leaves them each ever more untethered from all the familiar touchstones of this life. I can relate to stumbling upon a ticket stub memory–just a reminder, not the whole show–causing me to flip through the family rolodex, checking for someone who can flesh out the story. Increasingly, there’s no one there.
    So, I’m opting these days for a paradigm shift; I’ve decided to take advantage of the inherent freedom in the lack of substantiation. Given my ancestral bent toward oral history and my own writerly inclination, I’ve given myself permission to use my memories in service to creating great stories. If my family had a motto, I’ve always believed it would be “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
    Rewriting history? Perhaps. Another perspective is to remember that the orating elders in my family never felt honor-bound to the malleable details–they stayed true to the character.
    I’ve come to appreciate how easily whatever lives(?) in the past eventually loses integrity. Time-softened, little bits of it wander off into other stories. I feel like I honor them best when they’re starring in a good story. This is where I now feel closest to those whose time here helped shape me. I’m also appreciating that, as the facts fade, the familial heart connections come to the fore, ever-present, waiting to be embraced.
    I’ve heard it said that just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s not true. Of course, I may have heard it from a relative.
    love you, gal


    • This is so great, Beck. I love your paradigm shift (and I promise you, I have NEVER used all those words in one sentence before). Who said the people who told us the stories in the first place remembered them accurately? “just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean it’s not true” is perfect.


  3. I can totally relate to this. My family tree is messed up. Not in the creepy, secretive, call-the-cops kind of way, but from what I can tell there was just enough dysfunction that once people grew up and left home, they didn’t stay in touch. Today, I could pass any of my cousins on the street and never know we’re related. My husband’s family is Italian. Need I say more? I’ve spent the last 40 years rolling my eyes at yet another story about some second cousin (twice removed) who’s kid is graduating from something and needs a gift. (Roll eyes) I kind of enjoyed hearing these stories as long as I didn’t have to get involved in any meaningful way, and I have to admit I was intrigued by how much everybody in his family knew about people they often hadn’t even seen in decades. Because somehow, some way, they stayed in touch; a concept that has totally escaped every member of my family, maternal and paternal, for nearly a century. And yet, someone in my family history wrote a book about our family tree. Yup, imagine that! My sister has the book and although she occasionally refers to it to prove a certain fact about this person or that (because being right about people you’ve never met is just so important) I’ve never read it. Ah, yes. Family. It’s a beautiful thing. 😉


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