Who’s Perching on the Branches of Your Family Tree?

Last year I decided to ask for genetic testing at 23 and Me as a birthday gift.

Have you done the 23 and Me test or a similar one, like the one at Ancestry.com?

I already knew the basics, but I thought it might be fun to have more specifics. I hoped that something I didn’t know might pop up on my family tree, since my information about my mother’s family only went back two generations. And because I spin yarns for a living, I was hoping to have some excitement, some mystery to pursue.

My results weren’t mysterious or surprising.

I’m 56% British and Irish. When I received my results, 23 and Me refused to divide those groups because there was too much overlap for a clear call. But apparently now they have enough data to be more specific. Just now when I checked my listing, they’d targeted Ireland, although with just as many markers from the UK. My great-grandmother who emigrated from County Cork and ran a boarding house in New York for other immigrants, would be pleased. It also explains why I’m such a fan of Celtic music, and have been since I heard my first penny whistle.

I’m also 20% German and French. I knew about both, so again, not a surprise. However today, 23 and Me specifies France–so I guess my German ancestors might have been from Alsace-Lorraine, which historically was claimed by either France or Germany, depending on which country had the biggest guns. Of course this explains why I like Debussy better than Wagner.

But then there was that drop of Scandinavian blood…

What was a bit intriguing was the 2% Scandinavian. At some point I had seen an immigration record for an ancestor on my mother’s side who arrived in France from Denmark. What a man with the name Emile LeBois was doing in Denmark is a mystery. I wish I knew, since I was named for Emile. Still, is he my Scandinavian connection? Apparently not. A quick glance at 23 and Me turned up a notation for Norway with the hypothesis that I had ancestors in Norway in the past 200 years, but none showing up from Denmark. Okay, new info and fun. This explains my love of Grieg.

I also have a dab of genetic material from the Iberian Peninsula, a little less from Sardinia. And today I see I have .1% Italian blood, which probably explains why I also love Puccini.

I’m having fun. Every time I check in, there’s something new on my profile. And while some of it is clearly off base, like, the length of my big toe–yes, they throw in everything–it’s all intriguing.

How much does our ancestry affect who we are?

How about you? Do you still practice customs that your ancestors practiced generations ago in another country? Do you eat twelve courses on Christmas Eve the way your Ukrainian family did back in the old country? Do you create Pisanki, elaborately decorated Easter eggs, the way your Polish family did? And how about food? Is life better when your grandmother’s Swedish limpa bread is on the table? Or your grandfather’s pizzelles using an iron brought over generations ago from Abruzzo?

Or maybe your roots aren’t from those countries, but somewhere along the way a family member ate limpa or pizzelles, or took a class and created Pisanki, and now those traditions are your own.

I think about ancestry when I create characters.

I strongly believe we are a product of ancestors we will never know, many whose names we’ll never hear, and certainly whose idiosyncrasies, are hidden from view all these years later. And yet, how many times have you heard stories about an adopted child who meets a biological relative and immediately sees that person scratching behind his left ear when thinking, or standing with one leg folded, and suddenly feels a visceral connection because he/she, too, has always done the same.

My grandfather–and not the Irish one, thanks–was an alcoholic. His disease tore his family to shreds, and my own father never recovered from the damage. In many ways my dad couldn’t be the father he should have been because he hadn’t learned how, or had learned how not to grow close to people for fear of being hurt, or for a thousand other reasons related to his father’s alcohol abuse. The damage sifts down through generations. As do the strengths.

Those folks on the family tree? They’re more than statistics and percentages, they are, to a large part, the reason we’re here–that should be obvious–but also why we are who we are.

As a novelist I can design my family tree around the facts I know.

I have the luxury of starting with the present and moving backwards, figuring out how my character became the person he/she is. Most of what I decide is invisible to my readers, unless they read between the lines and use their own imaginations.

In real life the facts can’t be changed. We are who we are, and knowing why and how? I, for one, find it fascinating. There will be good and bad surprises on the journey. But I’m ready.

How about you? Want to share a story from your own ancestry searches or family tree?


  1. Joni on May 9, 2018 at 5:01 am

    My Mom was really big into the genealogy ancestry- books,charts you name it she researched it. Somehow it’s just never been my cup of tea. But your reference to your Grandfather being an alcoholic sure hits home – my Dads Dad was and as my Dad doesn’t drink he is a pathological liar! Always trying to impress people one would think at 84 you could just be yourself!

  2. Coelle Baskel on May 9, 2018 at 10:49 am

    My husband and I also had our DNA tested by 23andMe. I love how they will continue to update the results. We also did the health part of the test and found that extremely interesting. They even re-tested ours after getting FDA approval to test for the BRCA1 and 2.
    I’m a little like you in that I’m 65.2% British/Irish (more British) and 17% French/German with a touch of Scandinavian (Finland)….no southern European…100% Northwestern European.

  3. Nancy Lepri on May 9, 2018 at 9:22 pm

    I’d love to do this and maybe one day I will! So interesting!

  4. LCecka on May 10, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    I know why I liked Emilie. I have the British, Irish, French and German ancestors in common. It stops at German though. Mine goes further back with Austrian Czech, drops of Spanish, possibly Jewish, African and pusian. I was able to track back 13 generations on my mother’s side. I think I understand why I feel an awkward combination of traits makes up me. Doing this research helps me embrace my traits and value my genetics. I am more at peace. I bond more easily with other cultures. I get excited that my blood line intersects with the world in a very real way

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