Doing Your Ancestry DNA

Getting the breakdown of your ancestry is pretty easy these days, and rather inexpensive. There’s always a disclaimer, along the lines of “be prepared to find that you may not be who you think you are”, but after the glitzy ads on TV, people probably read right through that. I remember a family story from long ago, that my mother’s cousin, the woman we called Aunt Ella, was big into delving into the Halpin family history until she reached an ancestor who died in SanQuentin after murdering his wife. That was not the history Aunt Ella wanted unearthed, and she gave up the effort.

We all have stories about ourselves, and our historic identity is often a bedrock part of the narrative. I credit my writing ability to the story-telling prowess of the Irish, and it would be disruptive to my self-understanding if I found that I wasn’t Irish at all. Perhaps for that reason, or because I’m more generally oriented toward the present and future, I haven’t had any curiosity about spitting in a vial and sending it off to Ancestry or 23andMe or one of the other sites that gin up these sorts of reports.

I came across a fascinating piece in the Washington Post about a woman in her early 60’s who decided to try “recreational genomics”, and instead turned up a 100 year old mystery. Her Irish father, Jim Collins, had actually been switched at birth — hospital error — and was actually a Jewish boy named Phillip Benson. Phillip, in turn, was actually Jim.

Both men were dead by the time of her search, but she did find blood cousins she didn’t know she had, and also had to come to terms with beloved blood cousins who actually weren’t related to her at all, at least not genetically. On the whole, she’s glad to know the truth.

I’m always glad to know the truth too. Some truth I seek out, and some I deal with if it finds me. “Recreational genomics” is in that latter bucket, and I won’t be sending off my spit any time soon.

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