When Your Family History Isn’t What You Thought
BROUGHT TO YOU BY 23andme
For most of my life, I was under the impression I was German and Norwegian. My mom lived in Germany for a year and my dad had visited in his early 20s to understand more about his German heritage. While I don’t remember meeting my great-grandparents, I knew their names, their stories, and their personalities. My mother’s mother had meticulously documented her family’s history, and I sat with her while she rattled off a web of names, pointed to who married who and which relatives bequeathed our side of the family antiques from the homeland. As a kid, I could fill in my family tree for school projects and wore thick Norwegian sweaters for Christmas photos. We started every meal with a German blessing “Gesegnete Mahlzeit,” and knew the terrifying story of Father Christmas and his bundle of sticks.
So, knowing my history, it was funny that I fell into Irish Dancing. For 12 years of my life, I would travel to Ireland multiple times a year for dance competitions. The Irish friends I made always asked how we ended up so involved in a culture we didn’t share, to which I shrugged and said I loved the music and it was a lot more exciting than ballet.
We made friends in Ireland. Each year, we’d travel to different parts of the Emerald Isle, always painfully aware we were guests participating in a part of their heritage. No matter what our family history said, I felt moved when I heard Irish music. I felt like I could fly when I danced. My passion turned into a somewhat decorated (yet short-lived) Irish Dancing career, with three regional and two national titles, at one point ranking 8th in the world. As my college years loomed closer, I knew it was time to hang up my dancing shoes and turn towards the next chapter in my life.
This story starts getting bizarre in 2004. This is my father’s father, Donald Arends. What he didn’t realize for over 70 years is that he was adopted.
And get this– his birth parents? 100% Irish.
After he was contacted by a missing persons agency and given the news that he had been given up for adoption in 1928, he learned it was his dying biological mother’s wish for her children to track down her first-born child she had given up when she was 16, and deliver the box of mementos she had saved for him for close to 80 years. Which consisted of a lock of her hair and a picture of herself and his father. She never got over the guilt of giving up her first baby.
We were happy to learn he was relieved by the news, as we learned he was treated poorly by his new family, abused by his uncles, and was considered more of a farm help than an only child. Meeting his half-siblings was a fresh start in his twilight years, and it was inspiring to see someone widely known for his contagious optimism live through such trying times as a young person. Personally, the news rocked our family for other reasons. It was incredible to learn after all those years surrounded by Irish friends, traveling across Ireland, feeling the music deep in my chest… I had no idea I was 50% Irish. My father, who loved EVERYTHING about Irish culture, was nearly 100% Irish. It was almost hilarious, the irony.
As we began to process the fact that a huge part of our family history was not what it seemed, my grandfather bonded with the siblings he never had. He learned that he had his mother’s eyes and resilient demeanor, in addition to her notorious Irish stubbornness. We threw a birthday for “Robert Cavanagh” the name my father would have taken had it been acceptable for his a 16-year-old Catholic mother to keep a baby born out of wedlock.
My granddad passed away last year, and there will forever be a void where his contagious energy brought joy to just about everybody in any room he entered. My mother’s mother, the keeper of much of our family history, left us a few years before that. And while we’re lucky to have proximity and closure on some aspects of our family’s history, questions remain.
I often think about what life would be like if that missing persons agency hadn’t contacted my granddad. How would this news affect me now?
There are still some unknowns. We know nothing about my granddad’s father other than the fact he was a soldier of Irish descent. So when 23andMe reached out to see if we would be interested in writing a story about our ancestry, I jumped at the opportunity. I have many friends who had gone through the process and learned more about their makeup than they had previously realized. My father, mother and I took an ancestry test, which consisted of a simple spit test and then waiting for our results to come in 3 weeks later.
Upon receiving our reports, I didn’t know what to expect! I figured there would be strong Irish and German lineage, but would there be some strange anomalies revealed that would shed new light on our family history? The answer was yes and no.
My father can officially confirm he is 89% Irish and that he has a tiny trace of Native American ancestry in his lineage. My mother now knows her ancestry can be traced to several countries across Northern Europe, not just Scandinavia (17%) and Germany (10%). Surprisingly, she found out she was, in fact, 18% Irish– with a trace of North African descent. We had so much fun diving into all the what-ifs surrounding this new information. You can’t piece together your entire ancestry with a simple DNA test, but it does bring you closer together and reminds you to ask questions, write down stories, and learn as much as you can about your past while the keepers of these memories are still with us.
So here we are, a family of five who made the trek to Ireland almost 9 times over the course of my childhood, all the while, never knowing we were visiting the country we came from. What do we do with this new information? I propose a family reunion. Arends family: let’s do it right this time and instead of thanking the Irish for taking in their German friends, we can proudly say we’re one of them.
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