“I wonder what a DNA test would show. My dad’s Scotch-Irish I think and my mother is full-blooded German. But maybe some other genes are mixed in there,” my husband mused.
“Well, there’s one sure way to find out. Get a DNA test,” I replied.
And so for Christmas 2018 one of the gifts under our tree for him
I’ve never had much doubt about my origins, which seem to be well-documented; for example, a snapshot from a 487-page book on the paternal family lineage written by a Longenecker cousin. My grandfather Henry, grandmother Fannie, with their son Ray (my father in a white dress), appear below in the lower right corner.
On my mother’s side, hundreds descended from Valentine Metzler, gathered to celebrate their coming to the New World during a 275th celebration in 2013. In the post, the congregation sings with conviction the words from “Faith of Our Fathers,” knowing their forefathers in Europe were persecuted (tortured, actually) for their faith.
The second stanza begins: “Our fathers chained in prison dark / were still in heart and conscience free.”
Whatever our family background, according to Psalm 139, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. As Jim Penner writes, “Did you know you started out as a single cell, and within that cell was enough DNA to hold the equivalent of 1000 volumes of coded blueprints?” These blueprints determine the color of your hair and eyes, the shape of your nose, your voice, your smile. You are an original, one of a kind, special.
* * *
For most of her life, Dani Shapiro, author of five memoirs and five novels, was assured of her heritage as an Ashkenazi Jew. One hundred percent, she thought, until a DNA test, taken on a lark, revealed otherwise.
Published in early 2019, her newest memoir illustrates the shock and awe of discovering through bio-genetics that she is not who she thought she was all her life. High on the New York Times best seller list, the true drama of her story is not the “discovery of her true identity, but the meaning she makes of it,” as the NYT book review points out.
You can read my review here.
Like Dani Shapiro, I have rested on the certainty of my pedigree my entire life.
When we cleared out two family homes, evidence of my lineage was found everywhere: In photographs, notations in family Bibles, and in other documents.
Unlike Dani whose parents secretly used non-traditional means, my parents did not wait years for my conception. I was born exactly nine months after my parents’ wedding, which I take as proof of my parentage.
However, my father chuckled when he called me Pocahontas because of my coloring and facial traits as a child. This small doll (3-inches long) remains in a dresser drawer.
Should I be worried?
There’s only one way to find out for sure: A DNA test!
How about you?
Have you taken a DNA test?
If you are adopted, have you attempted to discover your birth parents? What has been the result?
What documents about your family origins do you treasure?
I’ve never taken a DNA test. I’ve read that they aren’t entirely accurate and that when you share your lineage via Ancestry.com you’re giving the police access to information about yourself as well as all your other [perhaps newfound] relatives.
In truth, those tests give me pause and until I know more about how my DNA information will be used, I’m not going to do one. That sentence alone is enough to confirm that I am my father’s daughter. He was always just a little bit paranoid about new ways in which the government can track you.
DNA tests are all the rage now, but you (and others) have given us cause for pause. I see you were wearing your spectacles as you wrote this reply. From where I sit, I wouldn’t say you are paranoid, just cautious. Thanks for starting off the conversation today, Ally!
Good morning, Marian! I’ve heard Dani Shapiro interviewed on at least three NPR shows recently. It’s a fascinating story. I’ve heard other stories recently of people discovering information about birth parents–some through DNA and some through other means. My niece found the family of her birth father a few years ago. I think Facebook played a part there, not DNA tests.
I did do a DNA test a few years ago–just Eastern European Jewish ancestry. Older daughter and I are trying to find out more about our ancestors, but we have to have help with some records. There is a lot more information available for my husband’s family.
The pixels and bits on the internet make possible other connections, especially via Facebook. Quite a network. One day when you are looking for another project (!), you could delve into it more. You have the research acumen to do it, if anyone does. Thank you, Merril! 🙂
I haven’t jumped on the DNA testing bandwagon, Marian. I don’t have much confidence in these companies keeping things confidential as information seems to be bought and sold with little regard to the individual’s privacy. My father has done some research on our family history…that’s enough for me.
How fortunate you are to have a dad who researches family lineage. Those links in the chain are so valuable in helping us forge our identity and preserve our history. Thanks, Jill.
Has Cliff taken the test yet? I heard Dani Shapiro being interviewed and would love to read this book. Isn’t it fascinating that she wrote three memoirs in search of self before she stumbled unto this explosive finding? I wonder if she will stop writing memoir now? Perhaps one more. About old age. 🙂
Yes, he has. His results were predictable (mostly German) but he found the percentages surprising.
After LMS, I intended to volunteer in the Mennonite TAP (Teachers Abroad Program) and hoped to be assigned to Germany. How interesting that the German boy I may have been seeking actually appeared at my front door. You’ve read my story draft and probably remember this part of the narrative.
About Dani Shapiro: her book tour extends far into the year, so I doubt she’s thinking about what to write next, though I don’t underestimate her. She’s 56 now and has years of writing ahead of her, no doubt. I always enjoy how your comments make me think. Thank you, Shirley!
DNA and family heritage are fascinating and you certainly have some very interesting background, Marian. I would have never guessed you looked like Pocahontas as a child, though, but I do love that doll: One to treasure forever, I am sure.
Has Cliff done his test yet? I am curious to know what he’d find out.
I had a dark complexion, thick braids, and almond-shaped eyes as a child, sort of like the Pocahontas doll you see here.
Yes, Cliff has done his test and has given me permission to reveal it here. It revealed German 83%, British 16%, and Iberian 1%.
Wow! What a gift! I’ve never taken a DNA test. I remember having to make a family tree when I was in eighth grade. So my parents and I sat down and talked about the great-great-grands. My sister-in-law, however, is tracing her side of the family’s roots.
The assignment of tracing family roots sounds appropriate for an 8th grader. I wonder if you were happy with your project.
In writing my memoir, I delved into family history and was happy to find books with charts that were very helpful. Research itself seems tedious to me although I like to know the findings. Thanks for this, L. Marie.
I too am curious about Cliff’s test. I had mine done back when National Geograohic first come out. No surprises; I was disappointed.
Yes, Cliff’s test results (revealed with his permission): German 83%, British 16%, and Iberian 1%.
I wonder if you were disappointed because the results were predictable or because you didn’t find Mexican (or Persian) in your ancestry.
National Geographic Society publication first came out in 1888, so you must mean its genealogical outreach. Thanks for your input today, Janet!
Yes. I meant their DNA testing. I was hoping to see Scotland show up, but only got “Northern European”. The new ones are much more finely focused. Did you know I have an ancestor on the Mayflower? Or is that “had”???
I have heard that 23andMe is more accurate although MyAncestry.com seems to be the most popular these days.
About the verb tense (since you pondered), I think “have” is okay because the people are ancestors, but you still have them. “Had” would imply they are no longer your ancestors. Ha ha!
Though I don’t wish to imply she is still on the Mayflower!! 🙂
Too funny, Janet. Hope you and Woody have had a Happy Valentine’s Day. (Note proper tense!)
have done testing. And I’ve been discussing with some cousins who have also done and wondering about great grands. ??? Hard to make some connections and where might the links have been broken.
Brenda, welcome to this column! I see your family is quite involved in DNA testing. I imagine your discussions about family connections are as interesting as the facts themselves. Thanks for posting your thoughts.
My ancestors came from Holland, famous for their dikes, thus probably the derivation of my maiden name “Neufeld” (Newfield in English). They took land from the sea by diking and thus created new fields. They were non-resistant Mennonites and moved to Prussia where they continued to farm and wrest land from the sea with the expertise they had learned in the Netherlands. My maternal ancestors, the “Kroeger” side were clockmakers and took that skill with them when they emigrated to Russia from Prussia in the late 18th century. I have done some translation work (German to English) of documents from that time for a Mennonite genealogist and found it quite fascinating, but don’t think I’ll be doing any DNA testing.
You give me a window into the world of Canadian Mennonites. When I was a student at Eastern Mennonite College, I learned to detect last names that had origins probably similar to your heritage: Friesen, Klassen, and Reimer. You have lots of expertise with lineage and with language, which I admire. How I wish I had grown up bilingual. Spoken German was shushed inn my parents’ families because of the oppressiveness of Germany in the early and mid-twentieth century. Thanks for all this, Elfrieda.
Marian, I wanted to add that I appreciate your blog posts so much because they always make me think about my family history. Although we both have Mennonite heritage and our ancestors were persecuted for their faith, our family paths took very different turns, and here we both are in Canada and the US, looking back, and trying to make sense of it all!
Thank you for your addition here. As I research Mennonite and Anabaptist history (in general) for my memoir, I discovered that Mennonites in the Netherlands were sympathetic to the Swiss/German Mennonites who were persecuted in the early 1700s and paid for their passage from Rotterdam to America on the good ship “Hope.”
Trying to make sense of it all ~ very true!
Like you, I have much evidence to point to my cultural heritage but of course you never entirely know. It might be fun to do a DNA test. Let us know how yours turns out (if you wish to share, of course). Whatever it is, I certainly wouldn´t worry. We are who we are.
I have spent so much time digging into my history and lineage for my memoir, I don’t feel inclined to do a DNA test. At least not yet. We are who we are, indeed! And, like you, I want to be the best possible version of myself. Thanks for the thought, Darlene!
Marian — It’ll be exciting to learn about Cliff’s lineage. Hopefully you’ll share that soon.
And yes, my sister and I did DNA testing and it confirmed what we’d always been told, plus a snippet of “Latvia” thrown in for good measure.
I remember that you were a Hunter, and now a gatherer, mining so much wisdom for your books. The Latvian mix of genes may add to your facility as a storyteller. Thanks for stopping by today to comment, Laurie!
I haven’t done a DNA test as there is a handed down fear of this information falling into the hands of people who would store it. My Dad’s said is Romany Gypsy so there is a natural fear of people in charge having information on them, I guess it’s been passed onto me. I am very interested in DNA tests however.
How fascinating to have Romany Gypsy ancestry, Adele Marie. As you can see, other commenters are also suspicious of genetic information falling into the wrong hands. Obviously, one can be interested in DNA testing without actually doing one yourself. I can identify with that!
Thanks for reading and commenting. You are welcome any time!
Thank you, Marian. x
I’m awaiting my results, though we have enough records that I’m not expecting any surprises. Hubby is from Ireland and was a little disappointed to find out he’s over 90% European. I’m not sure what he was expecting! lol
Your comment made me chuckle, Jenn. Possibly your husband was wanting something exotic. Maybe he was hoping for some Asian or Middle-Eastern genes. Ha!
You have such a fascinating past, upbringing, string of evidence, mementos, and lineage, Marian, that I don’t think a DNA test will be revealing. But, you never know! Let us know how it works our for Cliff.
I think the only time I’ve heard of Ashkenazi Jews is when questions are asked about our health by doctors and such. Apparently, their lineage has a higher risk for breast and maybe other cancers as well. Sorry to stray from the topic.
I’ve never read anything by Dani Shapiro, but I’ve heard about her. She must have had quite the life being able to write five memoirs! I should check her out one day, after I read my list of other TBR books! So far, I haven’t read anything this year.
I’m not too curious or “worried” about my heritage. I look like my mom and I have many (funky) characteristics of my dad. Yet, I think everyone at some point in time wonders whether they were adopted. 🙂
Cliff is mostly German, a little bit British, and 1.1 % Iberian, whatever that means.
I know you are busy with memoir, so don’t apologize for not reading. For me, reading other books helps me see my own manuscript in a different life. About Dani Shapiro, her writing is wonderful, but her most recent book sort of cancels out all the thoughts about family she held earlier. Although the parents who raised her had varying degree of mental illness, she had other relatives who mentored when when she thought she was 100% Jewish – ha!
You’re a pure-bred, no doubt about it. 😉
Happy Valentine’s Day to you and Mark.
Thank you for sharing Cliff’s results with me. That’s very exciting, especially the Iberian 1%: we could be related!!! 😉👍
So funny, Fatima. Wouldn’t that be hilarious if it were possible to trace such a specific connection. That would certainly be a book in the making: Random Tests Find Unlikely Connection.
I like the way you think – thanks!
The mysteries of life! 💖
Hi Marian – interesting re: DNA. Methinks I’m a little like Ally Bean, concerned about details falling into those who have no right to know. But the bigger question for me, do I want to? I know some, and I like what I’m a hybrid of.
A cousin of mine has written about our shorter term history which I found interesting. My sister is I think doing some research. I think there is value in this – and the idea of generations past passing on their genes is interesting. Makes me think of ‘the sins of the father will be passed on to 4 generations’. But more than that, there is value in wondering about the history of all of us and what is passed on that is still felt in our bones … eg the ongoing repercussions of Eve being discarded from the Garden of Eden taken in the mythological sense.
The reference I was thinking of: Deuteronomy 5:9 Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me . . .
If you like what you are a hybrid of, no need to trace further. Why bother, especially since other family members are researching now.
I think you are speaking of original sin when you refer to Even and the Garden of Eden story. So much poetry and prose has been written about that, for sure. Thank you too for your Old Testament reference about the sins of the fathers. I will look it up after my appointment.
It’s always good to hear from you, Susan. Thank you!
Thoughtful post, Marian, and I responded in my mind in several ways. I enjoy reading the comments of your readers. I go back and forth in my reaction to a DNA test. I’m almost positive I’ll never take one because in all truth, I feel that we are all part of the human race and connected in so many ways. I think it’s wonderful if people who take the test find out they have some Native American DNA as well as DNA from other races and countries that the last few generations of ancestors would be shocked about. One of the positives of DNA testing is how people HAVE found out that they are not ‘pure’ European or Indian or African or whatever their current bloodline seems to be. To paraphrase a popular song awhile back – We Are the World. 🙂 xo
I like your take on this – and your conclusion: “We are the World,” and then the Disney tune came to mind too, “It’s a small world after all!” However, Dani Shapiro solved the reason for her unease about her identity with a DNA test and found a measure of peace, in the end. Then she hit the NYTimes best seller list to boot. One never knows where curiosity will lead, as you prove every week on your blog posts!
I love the fact that you wrote that whatever your family’s origins, that we are all wonderfully and fearfully made! However, finding out the origins of who you are from way back is actually kind of interesting!
Thank you for visiting here, Patricia. I knocked on the door of your sunshiny blog and left a comment there. I love how social media can make connections with kindred spirits we’d never meet otherwise. Have a great weekend!
For me, family is all about love and who cares for you more than about genetics. My kids are adopted and my daughter will be 18 in August. She doesn’t want to take a DNA test, but she does want to write to the agency and ask for her papers. They will legally be available to her. But now that I think about it, I’ll mention a DNA test to her. Thanks for the idea.
I’m glad this post sparked an idea for you. But I couldn’t agree more: ‘family is all about love and who cares for you more than about genetics.” You are a very generous person, Fiona. Your actions say so.
Thanks so much for chiming in here. 🙂
Never be worried always be proud of what you are and who you are …whatever you find out . I believe that you should . I have never had a DNA but I think it’s a dam good idea . I have always been lead to believe my paternal Grandfather was welsh and my maternal Grandmother was Irish , I really don’t know but I ‘m a little potty , probably eccentric is the word so who knows …watch this space
You absolutely crack me up! Many wonderful writers and actors have come from such a lineage: Catherine Zeta-Jones and James Joyce come to mind. Humor and goodwill resonate in everything you post. Merci beaucoup, Cherry! 😉
P. S. I’ll keep watching, haha!
You’re the Queen of family history. I’m not worried and I haven’t had a DNA test. Maybe I will sometime, but I know I’m a mix –Welsh, Danish, German, Dutch, and whatever else. I look at photos of my paternal grandma, my favorite, when she was 16 and think she must have been part African. She was the Dutch one and Dutch explorers wandered the world, so it could be. Somehow, so far, I haven’t needed to verify or trace. Maybe someday. Maybe not. Most everyone seems to come up with surprising revelations. I wonder what Cliff discovered. I cherish a photo I have going back 4 generations of women on my mother’s side–with their names written on the back. My mom isn’t in the photo or me, so that means I know the names and faces of 6 generations in my maternal line.
I look forward to reading your review tonight. Thanks for that, too.
You are YOU and that’s all that matters. In a way, I guess we’re all mutts – ha!
A photo with names, how wonderful. So many long-ago family photos flying around lack identification and dates. Knowledge of six generations is rare. Hold on to that, Elaine, and thanks for expressing yourself here.
Cliff is 81% German, according to the test. The rest is English and a smidgeon of Iberian. Some Spanish genes must have snuck in there somehow. 😉
Marian, thank you for a stunning post and review (on Goodreads) of Dani Shapiro’s latest book. I’ll be taking my copy with me to the hospital to read. From the sound of it, I’ll likely not be able to put it down! I’ve been wanting to get my DNA done, but so far I haven’t decided it’s worth the $$. You always make stopping by so interesting.
I connect with Dani’s work, I guess because I admire her writing style. All of her previous works are based on her strong connection to her Jewish heritage and culture. Her discovery forced her to adjust her ideas about family lineage. You won’t be disappointed. 🙂