On the Road: Diving into the Deep End of the Gene Pool

The Ancestry.com DNA test. A. Hinkle photo.
The Ancestry.com DNA test. A. Hinkle photo.


By Annette Hinkle

My daughter turned 16 this past weekend. Among the presents she received for her birthday was a new bike (which I’m not sure I’m going to let her ride around here now that Memorial Day has arrived) and a DNA testing kit.

I know what the snarky amongst you are thinking — “Hmmm, I guess someone’s not sure who the mother is.”

But yes, I assure you. I was there that day at Stony Brook Hospital 16 years ago. I remember having Jello for dinner after little Sophie’s arrival and I can, indeed, attest to my parentage … and for the record, people say she looks like my husband too, so don’t even go there.

No, this DNA delving is about something more I believe. A desire on the part of my child to know where she really came from in a deep ancestry kind of way.

I’m not sure if most kids her age go through this kind of genealogical soul searching or if it’s an outgrowth of our own sporadic family history.

I suspect the latter.

We know a lot of people with tons of relatives — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all living within close proximity and full of family tales. But when it comes to stories about our lineage, I’m afraid there isn’t much to share. My parents were on the older side when they had me, as were their parents. Which means pretty much everyone a generation removed was dead before I came into the picture. It’s much the same thing on my husband’s side where there seems to be a lot of sketchy eastern European roots. As a result, in our little family of three, it turns out that none of us — neither my daughter, my husband nor myself —ever knew our grandfathers and nobody was particularly good at writing anything down.

The only truly dramatic bit of family lore is on my mother’s side where I had a great great great (great?) grandfather named Edmund Gallagher who was a co-conspirator in the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798 which forced him to flee Ireland. For some reason, he settled in eastern Ohio and among his off-spring two generations later was Nicolaus Aloysius Gallagher who served as Bishop of Galveston from 1892 to 1918.

There. That’s about it. Our claim to fame. My father’s side is even more opaque. His grandparents came from somewhere near Transylvania and spoke German. Though they grew up just a few miles apart, my father’s parents didn’t know each other in the homeland. Coincidentally, within a year of each other in the early 1900s they both left their small rural villages and boarded the same ship out of Trieste bound for the New World. Naturally, as German speakers they headed straight to Cincinnati (because of the beer) where they met and eventually started a bakery.

This history makes it clear that we have a lot of wanderers in our family, so unlike the Lesters and the Bennetts of the East End, ours is not a name that can be mentioned and linked to the ancestral pillars of any one community.

Nope. Leaving nary a trace is more our style.

So I think a big part of Sophie’s curiosity about her past has a lot to do with the fact that she’s never had any relatives who can share the big stories, the legends, the fables of familial glories.

That’s why the spit test. That’s how they do these things nowadays. I signed her up to receive Ancestry.com’s DNA test (the company was started by a couple LDS members because apparently Mormons are into genealogy, but I didn’t know that at the time) and within a matter of days, the little box arrived in the mail complete with vials, instructions and a prepaid mailer to send the spit back to Utah for analysis.

Sophie hasn’t actually done the test yet, but I’m pretty confident I could draw the resulting migration map myself at this point. Big arrow coming out of the Fertile Crescent, heading to the frozen north of middle Europe with a few small arrow offshoots heading east into the former Soviet Union while a few others spin off into the frozen tundra further north, representing ancient relatives who took offense over a family campfire and decided to take their chances with socialized medicine in Scandinavia (hence the blue eyes and skin that sunburns easily).

Honestly, I’m not sure what more she’s going to get out of a $79 test than that, but I think it’s kind of cool that she’s interested in giving it a try. To me, the DNA desire speaks to a larger issue of what’s going on inside her rapidly evolving teenage self. I can feel we’re at the age of separation. The point of no return when a young person begins formulating their own opinions and identity instead of relying on that of their parents. Though she still dislikes Trump (that’s my girl), as a mom, you realize the conversations no longer involve you, and that your child is developing viewpoints based on information you’ve never heard.

But at the age of 16 as they begin reaching out toward a new life on their own and grown up responsibilities like driving and college, our teens are also reaching back for assurances that they’re OK. I suspect that’s where the DNA test really comes in. Moving forward with the security of thousands of years worth of survivors lined up behind you to let you know that we’ve gotten this far together, you’ll be just fine.

When it comes to our collective past, I’ve heard people brag about being related to Charlemagne. In fact, I’ve read it would actually be more astounding if you weren’t related to Charlemagne given the population of the world in 800 AD. Truth is, if you’re of European heritage, pretty much any individual in the ninth century who left descendants is your ancestor, including Charlemagne.

If you want to talk about what truly makes us special, the more amazing thing to consider is the high probability that none of us would ever have made it this far at all. Think about it. Disease, pestilence, infant mortality, maternal death, war, famine, murder, wild animals, stupidity (especially stupidity) … all of that stuff wiped out tons of people in the old days in numbers we can’t even begin to imagine.

As a result, I’m telling my daughter that if she’s looking for a dose of confidence to carry her into the next part of her life, just remember that if it wasn’t for the superior decisions and skill sets of our deep ancestors, she wouldn’t be here to worry about any of this — not even close.

So go ahead and spit, and let’s see where it takes us.