Monday, July 31, 2017

Turning The Telescope The Other Way

We bought ancestry DNA tests for our three younger sons.  Two are adopted from Romania and we suspect they might have different fathers, the third is a nephew we brought in when he was 13.  His own mother was adopted and raised by a Jewish family. We hoped to find out more, and that is happening. Good times, lots of conversation, analysis, questioning, wincing.

They send you a list of relatives in their database, with a narrow estimate how close they are.  If all you are doing is trying to get a bead on ancestral information then everyone is happy.  Pretty much.  If you go for a DNA test, you are already at least vaguely prepared for unpleasant surprises and where they might come from. We went into this hoping to get some clarity on previous generations. That's what most people are looking for.

But when it's a 21 year-old taking the test, and the identified "2-3rd cousin" is a 70 year old with an Italian last name, suddenly you are looking at messaging them "Hey, did you have a brother or cousin who got a Jewish girl pregnant 50 years ago?" That's likely not what he signed on for. And seeing that, and turning the telescope around, I have two brothers.  I have cousins who I know a fair bit about and am fond of, but do I absolutely know whether they have children out there that I am not aware of? And do I want to know that if they do?  My father was in the army of occupation in Hokkaido, and revealed significant sexual impulsivity later. So, maybe a half-sibling in Japan for me?  I wouldn't mind that - I don't know how the Japanese look at that these days.  At my age, and seeing the dark underside of life as a social worker for decades, I'm not going to be bothered or heavy in judgment, but gee whillikers, Skippy, if they wanted to keep this secret they may not like being helpless in the face of other relatives being able to figure this out.  Bad enough that people who are looking at the record could compare wedding dates and first child's DOB*, but this takes it to a new level. I like my siblings and cousins. If they have secrets they want kept secret I want to honor that, even now, when we all would just sigh, and tell the stories and no one be angry or disdainful.

Tracy and I have straightforward genealogies (we think) on 3 of 4 grandparents each. I can tell that great-grandfather Charlie Wyman is my ancestor because we've got pictures, and he looks like me, and more like my brothers. We would be checking the DNA results largely to probe more deeply into those missing 25%'s. But doing that opens us up to other, one or two generations younger, seekers who might tell us things by asking things. Do we actually want that? The test is cheap.  The results are approximate, but at the near distance of close relatives are often inescapable.


*"The first one always comes early," was the midwife's joke.  In my mother's generation, an item of shame.  In my generation, it was a bit embarrassing but "he made an honest woman of her."  In my children's generation, there's a sort of quaint, old-fashioned honor about it. A giggle and "how sweet."

5 comments:

RichardJohnson said...

With family history,there will always be missing threads. DNA or not. Several years before she died in the 1980s, my aunt told me of an encounter 60 years before at the funeral of her brother, who died of pneumonia when he was 3. My aunt would have been 11 or so. A woman in her 60s came into the funeral home. My grandfather told her that she needed to leave ASAP. She did so, replying that she just wanted to see the family.

Turned out this woman was my grandfather's aunt, the sister of my great-grandfather.
Years later my aunt asked my grandfather what had happened. His reply was that some things can't be repaired, can't be undone.
(I had heard enough tales about my great-grandfather to conclude that he was rather cantankerous, so I guess that my great-grandfather had some sort of quarrel with his sister.From what I heard, it didn't take much for my great-grandfather to have a quarrel.)

Decades later, I told this to my cousin, my aunt's daughter. She hadn't remembered hearing the story. But there was a twist. The relative booted out of the funeral home had married a Russell. Though she didn't end up marrying him, for a while my cousin was the fiance of a member of the Russell clan- they had gone together for years. My cousin told me that what I told her cleared something up. She told me that our grandparents had a rather cool reception to young Mr. Russell when he showed up to pick my cousin up for a date. (My cousin lived with my grandparents for several years.) That cool reception was probably a consequence of the family feud from decades before.


Which reminds me of something a family friend told me 25-30 years ago. One time she was having coffee in a local cafe when a younger guy- call him Bill- sat down and introduced himself. He recognized her as the mother of Joe Schmoe, with whom he had played pickup football games in high school. The relationship didn't go beyond football games, which explains why the family friend didn't recognize Bill.

Bill got to talking to her. He told her that he had a love child in the Dominican Republic, the result of a vacation trip. He sent money every month. I have known Bill's family for decades. I always visited Bill's siblings- and Bill if he was around- when I was back in town. I had never heard anything before or after about that love child. Bill wanted to tell someone about the love child, and she was a safe haven to confide in because she didn't socialize with his friends, being from another generation and another town.

Regarding asking potentially embarrassing DNA questions, my inclination would be to not ask.

Donna B. said...

Several years before Ancestry was offering DNA tests, we had my father's done through some other service that I can't remember right now. They didn't offer the relationship degrees that Ancestry does, but they did identify surname groups and my father didn't fit in any of the groups with surnames resembling his by any stretch of the alphabet. But he did fit perfectly in a surname group we'd never heard of before. We still don't know anything about his ancestry before 1850, but we've stopped banging our heads against that wall.

On my mother's side of the family, the Ancestry DNA has hooked us up with lots of cousins that basically confirm the records we had. No real surprises there. But that's because not all our relatives -- especially those born out of wedlock and given up for adoption in the 20th C have had their DNA run through Ancestry. There's at least one who found us because his doctors wanted a medical history. Poor guy was in his late 50s when his parents told him he was adopted and he started searching. He found his mother and father and only one of his half-siblings (out of 6) welcomed him to the family. Several of us cousins have kept in touch with him, but he's bitter and I don't blame him. His siblings are the "strange" cousins anyway...

My sister and I knew that we were not entirely genetically similar long before DNA testing was available because of tissue typing when her son needed a bone marrow transplant years ago. She was, not surprisingly the best match, with our mother the next best. (Her husband's family didn't "believe" in such medical nonsense and refused to be tested.) My father and I apparently could have donated for each other, but not for my sister, much less her child. In the years since, my sister has experienced many of the health problems of my mother's family and I've experienced those of my father's family. I got the best deal, by far.

My Ancestry DNA shows 7% Iberian Peninsula and 8% Scandinavian heritage while my sister's shows <1% for both those regions. While that's interesting, it's not really useful in any way that I can identify. Though it makes me wonder why she had the stereotypical Scandinavian blond hair while mine was mousy brown. We're both grateful we didn't get the carrot red that our Mom's 3 brothers sported.

Interesting tidbit about red hair - one of my uncles was a POW on Palawan (one of the 11 survivors of the massacre) and he told us that his red hair and beard seemed to infuriate the Japanese for some reason. When he figured this out, he refused to shave or cut his hair which earned him extra punishment, less food, and "forced grooming".

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Donna - many of the results have that much range, which shows how lightly we should hold them at present.

As I have my complete genome sitting on my computer but have no tool to read it, I am hopeful I can get better results someday.

Donna B. said...

I submitted my results to https://promethease.com/ and that helped a little bit. And I do mean little! I did discuss with my doctor the indication that I might not respond well to a certain class of antibiotics. His response was... well, that's interesting. And I've not needed antibiotics since that discussion.

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