What’s in Those Genes, Baby

If I were a dog, you would call me a mutt. Heinz 57. No papers, but is friendly, enjoys long walks and is house trained.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my heritage. Maybe it’s all the recent WW2 fiction I’ve been reading lately or maybe it’s current events, or maybe it’s just that I am starting to wonder and there are these new cool and simple and affordable tests that can tell you “what you are”.
Without drawing you a complicated diagram, I’ll just tell you that my family tree has some blank spots. The man who knocked my mom up went on to have three other kids with two other women and my mom married my dad (who adopted me) and had three more kids plus he had a son from a previous marriage. It leaves me with two half-brothers, one step brother and four half-sisters. One of the holes comes from the source of the male half of my DNA, whom I saw only once in my lifetime and whom, last I heard, was having a secret internet affair with a nurse, despite celebrating 25 years with his current wife. We don’t keep up, but during the one time I did meet him, he told me that he never knew who his father was. His mother, of whom my mom said “was always good to me” died before I was old enough to even know she existed.
My heritage has never concerned me too much before. Granted, school family tree projects would get me thinking, but it wasn’t something I grew up caring about. We celebrated our heritage as Americans, being multiple generations into being Americans. We credited Mother Earth with our heritage.
When I started to date J, his mom asked me about my ancestry. She is a very nice, sweet, lady and I like her a lot, but I have to admit I found the question somewhat invasive and almost offensive. And also, I had no idea what the answer was so I said, “I have no idea, if you ask my mom she’ll tell you we’re American.” My future mother-in-law could hardly believe it, and at the first opportunity, she asked my grandpa (at church!) about the heritage of both he and my Gram. I learned from my future mother-in-law that Grandpa is mostly German and Gram English.
I learned more after Gram passed away, and it was revealed that she had all the official documents of a “Daughter of the Mayflower”. (Who knew?) The only reference I ever remember my Gram making to heritage was to say, “I am NOT Dutch.” (and I’m still a little fuzzy on why….)
What I didn’t tell J’s mom, was that we all know that when Grandpa’s mom (my great grandma) was 19, she married a man who was 32, with one arm and one eye missing (WW2 vet, I have all his letters and they are an amazing story I might share someday) who drove the church bus. My grandpa has blond hair and blue eyes in a strain so strong that all his kids got exactly the same, and the rest of his siblings have brown hair and brown eyes. I realize this is entirely possible in genetics but there’s one more thing that even Grandpa admits is kind of the give-away; Grandpa had a mysterious college fund, and none of the other six kids did. You thinking what I’m thinking?
So, basically, there are some sketchy areas on both sides of my family tree from a genes perspective and those are only the ones I know about. I know I have skin that tans pretty easily and my sisters (defined as “the ones I grew up with”) are all fair skinned and freckled. I have curly hair, but so do two of the three sisters and so did Gram so that’s not unique. One time this little old lady who we didn’t really know pointed at me in a line with my sisters and said, “This one looks different from the rest of them.” Awkward.
Now, that’s not to say we do not have traditions in my family. We make lefse, not because we are Scandanavian, but because we live in a region that was settled by Scandanavians and even more importantly, lefse is tasty and delicious. Gram always made sure we had oyster stew on Christmas Eve, which is an American tradition that originated with Irish immigrants, and it wouldn’t be Christmas without the cookies, which are thought to have been brought to America by the Germans and Dutch. Our traditions are a melting pot of what we felt like making part of our history over the years.
When we started talking about birthday gifts for J’s mom earlier this year, the topic of DNA testing as a gift came up since she’s always been interested in ancestry, and for the first time, I started to thinking about it for myself. Wouldn’t it be cool if this mystery grandpa I never knew about was Greek or Italian or Native American? (hence my olive skin?) And then I had to ask myself, but what would it really matter? Would it change my life? Would I live my life any differently? Does it matter how science defines me? Or does it matter more how I define myself?
When I was growing up, I heard a lot of “you’re lucky to live in America” from teachers but it wasn’t until I was older, and did my own research and study, that I really developed a concept of what that meant. It wasn’t just because of those amber waves of grain. It was also because I had clean water and electricity and food to eat and a roof over my head. Because I could vote. Because I could get a job. Because I could drive. Because I didn’t have to work in a factory throughout my child hood.
I learned to appreciate what I had, but I never felt more like an American than on September 11th. Gram, who lived through her share of wars, told me once how different it was when Pearl Harbor was attacked. To be attacked on your own soil makes you want to gather your soil up under your protective arms and hold it tight, right along with everything else you love. Gram gave us all copies of the song, “Proud to be an American” for Christmas and told us it was so we never forget.
Lately, being an American has been linked to a whole bunch of things that I, and many others, are appalled about. Battles are being fought all over on our own soil and people are getting all up in each other’s business when it comes to ancestry and heritage and what being an American means. I know it’s cliché, but I am going to say it anyway- we are a land of immigrants and natives. Our heritage is what we choose to do in our lives that we pass along to our children. For the love of our children, our earth and our country, choose wisely.
I decided that for now, I am not going to get the DNA test. What good really, does it do to pick apart my genes when what I really am is who I am, and what I stand for, and what I choose to pass along to our children, today, no matter where the DNA originated?

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