Down the DNA rabbit hole…

I always knew this would happen. That’s why I put it off for so long. Nonetheless, I finally spit into that tiny tube and sent my DNA off into the ether.

My father talked more about his family’s history than my mother did hers. I’ve always wondered if this had something to do with her sad childhood—her mother and sister died of Spanish flu when she was about 10; she nearly died of it herself. My immigrant grandfather was left with 11 children to raise. So it doesn’t surprise me that she wasn’t much for recounting childhood memories. She was respectful about visiting her older relatives (and showing up at the funeral home when they passed), but the visits that I recall were often more about cookie recipes than recollections of another time. There were family reunions, but they were more about lasagne and bocce, a blur of more distant cousins whose names I couldn’t remember from one year to the next.

Daddy, on the other hand, was a somewhat colorful storyteller who loved to talk about the tiny immigrant neighborhood in Rumford, Maine, where he grew up among a bevy of relatives. I wish I’d written down all those bits of history he shared. I especially wish that I’d noted the family connections. Over time, the details have faded, as have the faces and relationships of the peripheral relatives we used to call on in and around Boston. Fortunately, before Ancestry and its competitors came along, my cousin Frank spent some time with Daddy and a few other relatives. He created a family narrative that goes back to our great-grandparents and forward to our children’s generation. His diligent work remains close to my heart. Another cousin and her husband went to Calabria and searched out some family history there; he subsequently has done impressive work on our paternal family tree.

Years before, when the first genealogy software came out, I started a tree. I entered a few generations on both sides of my family but couldn’t go back far enough to impress myself or anyone else. When Ancestry©, Family Search©, and My Heritage© came along, I subscribed and poked around each of these applications but always lacked the abundant patience, sharply honed focus, and mental energy required. Years later, I watched with envy as my brother-in-law, with an engineer’s precision, recounted his DNA results then plunged relentlessly into the family tree; a decade later, he is still making connections and turning up interesting tidbits. I continued to dabble but never really progressed. The subscriptions ran out but the curiosity persisted. Facebook fed it well.

When I first joined Facebook©, just for fun I searched for my “maiden” name . To my delight, I found a group page devoted to it. Many of the subscribers came from my paternal grandparents’ home town, Centrache, in Catanzaro, down in the arch of the boot. Others bearing the name, with its varied spellings, were scattered through France, Canada, Argentina, and other parts of the US. I also found a Facebook page devoted to my mother’s surname; her parents had come from the village of Castiglione Cosentino in Cosenza, also in Calabria.

I had always thought that our family names were rare. Turns out that in Central Pennsylvania, they were. But what I learned from Facebook is that Centrache is still full of people with my father’s name, and that Castiglione Cosentino is still home to people with my mother’s. In fact, each town had a street bearing their names.

The world is both bigger and smaller than we think. But back to the rabbit hole.

In 2021, I learned that I had a new first cousin, once removed. This was not the only such occurrence in what was once a very large family. Two surprise cousins had turned up some time ago on my mother’s side, and one on my father’s. All three were adoptees who had chosen to search out their roots. In each case, they were welcomed enthusiastically into their biological families. But this latest new cousin was someone I’d lived near and known in high school. He’d found out about the relationship through a DNA test. Because I’m an only child whose cousins were her first friends, because they have always meant a great deal to me, I was pre-disposed to delight at this revelation. But it made me wonder who else was out there. So I rejoined Ancestry and sent for the test.

The big, noisy, affectionate family I grew up around as a child. That’s me in the forefront, on my cousin’s lap. That’s my mother, seated in back, wearing pearls, and my father, extreme right, in the glasses. It was our first Christmas in our new home. Whatever my searches turn up will be their stories, too.

When the results came in a few weeks later, the ethnicity didn’t surprise me: 86% Southern Italian, with a sprinkling of Aegean Islands, Cyprus, the Levant, and the Baltics (well, that may have been a bit of a surprise). But imagine how I felt when Ancestry turned up nearly 6,000 matches!

I know many have had the same staggering-the-imagination experience—the DNA I carry scattered all over the place, among the multitudes. It’s a bit of a weird notion to get your arms around, isn’t it? Of course, you have to have done a test to show up as an Ancestry match. So if I’m connected, even by a slender thread, to these nearly 6,000 fellow seekers, are there thousands more out there?

I can’t even…

I’ve been perusing these matches rather obsessively. Where there is a name (and there isn’t always) or a public tree (same thing), I haven’t a clue about most of them. And while that’s to be expected with 5th-8th cousins, I wouldn’t expect it at the 1st-2nd or even 3rd -4th level.

Who are these people? Who were the people who went before, before, and before… which logically leads to, “Who am I?” This is more of a web that snags and traps you than it is a beneficent, sheltering tree… more of a million-piece jigsaw puzzle, for which no surface is big enough, and which you know you can never complete.

I’m happy, truly happy, to extend family boundaries—it’s that only child thing. I’d like to sort what present-day mysteries I can, so I’m sending messages to the closer matches once a week or so. This will take time. I may never hear from some of them. But I did have an early success. I’ve chatted with another surprise cousin, again to my delight, and managed to connect this individual with other family members, to their delight. Meanwhile, I’ve been in touch with others who gave me access to their Ancestry trees—one of them in particular continues to do fabulous work on my mother’s side of the family.

“Down the rabbit hole” is an well overused but still perfect analogy. What do these near 6,000 matches mean in the grand scheme of things? I don’t know, probably not much. But then I always did like a puzzle.

Cover photo: This photo was taken in Centrache, somewhere near the end of the 19th Century. One of these people has been identified, the little girl in the middle, who may or may not be related to me. I believe one may be my great-grandmother on my paternal grandmother’s side. But at this stage it’s conjecture on my part..

18 thoughts on “Down the DNA rabbit hole…

  1. ladytravelsalone

    Hi Angela, I don’t remember where I found your blog but I’ve really been enjoying it for the past several years. Your post on Ancestry DNA struck a chord–I have been pursuing my family tree for years, and via Ancestry for at least the last 8 or so years. I have over 40,000 DNA matches there! (Actually, probably a lot more since those are only the ones they can peg to one of my parents.) It’s overwhelming! (I think it’s because I have many ancestors who were very early immigrants to the now-US. My mother’s side has significantly fewer matches than my father’s side–16K vs 24K–and I attribute that to the fact that her side contains the most recent immigrants–a pair of my great-great-grandparents who immigrated from Dresden, Germany.) It’s a fascinating hobby, though for someone who’s as much of a “mutt” as I am I don’t put much faith in their algorithm that decides which country/area your DNA comes from–mine changes significantly every time the algorithm is updated. Currently it says, for example, that I am 14% Sweden/Denmark although in all my research I have found 0 ancestors from either country. Anyhow, thanks so much for your posts–they are wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. automatic gardener

    I have always been interested in family history. My mother’s side has always kept track of the relatives and even has a little museum where their “colony” ended up in PA. I have traced all my lines back to the original ancestor that came off the boat. I don’t see as many living relatives as you, but they just may not do Ancestry. I find it to be an interesting hobby and spend hours on it. As a bonus, my father-in-law also had the same interest. My children have all the work done for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maureen Hart

    Glad to see you doing this. I’ve been doing Ancestry.com sporadically for some years, and ALWAYS end up down some rabbit hole that has little to do with my actual lineage. For instance, I went off on a tangent with my sister-in-law’s branch because she has both Mennonite and Mormon ancestors, a far cry from my Irish Catholic/German Lutheran ancestry. At least, that is how I identified, and I was partially right. In truth, I am more English/Anglican, and even more surprising, my latest DNA update shows I am more Scottish than anything, although I have never found that connection. But I’ve been told that can go way back, as DNA does, in the same way that Scandinavian shows up on my chart, but probably dates back to those long ago Vikings in Britain and Ireland! PS: I know I owe you a phone call!

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  4. Nancy

    How wonderful for you. And that picture looks similar to our old family pictures!
    I have my mother’s entire family tree. And my Dad’s is pretty close to being finished. Not by me but others who have done all the work.
    Enjoy your rabbit hole!

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  5. Judy@NewEnglandGardenAndThread

    Very interesting post, and I love the family photos. I’ve done the DNA and have spent some time on doing a family tree. I’ve traced it back quite a ways. Currently there is no one younger in the family that is interested so I’ve stopped spending much time on it. Family history is the best history book of all.

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  6. Ron

    This is fascinating Angela, I hope you have a big house in case they decide to visit all at once. Eva and I talked about doing the DNA thing but haven’t. Perhaps it’s time to see what shows up…

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  7. Marina

    So glad you are doing this! So does the Ancestry.com swab test do DNA… or genome testing? I thought women could only get vague answers, and that it’s the male DNA that is easier to trace for genealogy…

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    1. Angela

      I haven’t gone that deep, Marina–it says DNA so I’m assuming it’s not genome. I’m sure it’s int he fine print somewhere. All the answers regarding ethnicity are somewhat vague, based on what my brother-in-law discovered. My ethnicity wasn’t surprising-except for that Baltic trace, which on further reflection is probably a couple of Vikings who wandered farther south than they expected. For now, there’s plenty to chew on.

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  8. Terra

    I enjoyed this post about looking up ancestors and more living relatives too, like discovering new cousins, etc. I have almost too much ancestry info that is mainly unorganized and wrote the first draft of a short family history. I did the DNA 23andme test and liked getting the results.

    Liked by 1 person

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