From my mother, I grew up with very specific ideas about who I am genetically. We were Irish, “Descended from Jonathan Kelly, who stowed away aboard the Mayflower to get here and practice his Catholic faith in freedom from the English swine who stole our language and religion.” My mother had opinions on the English.
The stowaway part was a bit o’blarney according to my mother, what my Grandma Helen referred to as a “whopper,” and an outrageous lie in truth. There was an actual Jonathan Kelly, Irish Catholic, who came to America in the early 1700’s through the Virginia Colony, and one can follow the bloodline down to my mother’s generation and now, mine. He was not indentured. Jonathan Kelly came of his own free will for a chance at a better life.
My daughter took the Ancestry DNA test first, then Paul and I, all with a little surprise in the results.
Paul, my very tall, very fair, second-generation Irish American hubby was predictably Irish. Not a big surprise since his family came so recently. What was a surprise was the trace amount of Indian Subcontinent. How fascinating is that? How on earth did his poor, bog-Irish ancestors meet and mingle with someone from the Indian Subcontinent? We will probably never know but it sure makes for interesting conversation and speculation.
For me it was, what I had been told about my genetic code, along with so much else of my childhood, was not necessarily true. All the Irish heritage I was fed as a child ignored the far larger percentage of my genetic markers from Great Britian and hey, how ’bout them Spaniards and Jews! Like Paul’s Indian Subcontinent, hours of contemplation can flow from those Spaniards and Jews.
In a time when DNA testing didn’t exist, her Irish heritage was what my mother believed in. My paternal genetic heritage she dismissed as, “Scottish I think. Maybe some Welsh.” Sometimes I wonder if when my mother, removed from Ireland by multiple generations, an ocean, and most of another continent, railed against the English, was she really railing at my biological father? Were “the English” code for “the guy who left me”?Her Irish genes and superstitions were what she had to give me, and as with many things, maybe felt like she had more to give than she did.
What’s really got me curious is: who were those Eastern European Jews, Spaniards, Basques, and/or Portuguese lurking in that gene pool? Sailors from Phillip’s ill-fated Armada, washed up on Ireland’s shore? Or do they go further back, were they Celts who went north? I might never know. But I think there are fascinating stories there, waiting to be told.
It solidifies a suspicion I have harbored for some time: Americans are all mutts, mongrels, and we are stronger for it. Instead of standing shouting at each other, looking at one another as “Other” we should be mixing up the gene pool and ferreting out heritable diseases. Consider, the person you’re shouting at could be your cousin. If you’re not a Native American, at some point your people left someplace else, or were brought here against their will from someplace else and here we are now, together.
We’re going to live or die, together.
Last week, a 3rd cousin contacted me via Ancestry.com; she’s a beautiful mixed-race woman in Michigan. We haven’t figured out the common ancestor yet but there it is, courtesy of Science: two women of the same generation, raised thousands of miles apart, one recognizably African-American and one recognizably Astoundingly White, are genetically linked. We share blood family. We are blood family. How could I stand across a protest line and shout at my family? How could I wish less-than for my family? How can I not cry out for justice for my family?
I wasn’t who I thought I was genetically, but I am still me and as an American, I choose who that is. That is the grace of freedom, and freewill. I am a mutt and a mongrel, an American Girl.
It’s kind of liberating.
Who are you?