Inside that rabbit hole: a progress report

A few posts ago, I shared that I’d done a DNA test that yielded at least one expected result: I’m Southern Italian by an order of magnitude. But it also yielded close to 6,000 DNA matches from all over the place, from Rome to Canberra. The one result I’d really been after, a “proven” connection with the people I believe to be part of my Calabrian family, didn’t happen. In retrospect, that expectation now seems silly. Why would DNA testing be “a thing” if you’ve lived in the same village for a dozen generations? You’d already know who your cousins are.

As I described in that earlier post, a DNA test is not a once-and-done, “You are 86% Southern Italian” experience. The periodic discovery of new matches is as reliable as the finches who show up minutes after our feeders are restocked. At first, this was something of a fairy tale: that shiny locked door, with the found golden key, that opened to a world of enchantment. But instead of a fairyland, that door has indeed led me into a warren, with deep, deep burrows that shift and change daily. Somewhere, there’s a treasure or two.

This actually hasn’t been a Pandora’s box for me, at least not yet. I found some convincing evidence that dear Maria, whom I’d met through Facebook ten or more years ago and always hoped was my cousin, actually is my cousin, albeit distant. To my absolute delight, my matches turned up another distant cousin, a fellow Penn State alumna whom I’ve known for a number of years and greatly respect. Through a recently discovered third cousin who’s pretty serious about genealogy, I’ve discovered several branches of my father’s family that were totally unknown to me. An acquaintance from grade school graciously shared his tree for my mother’s family, reaching as far back as the 18th Century. There’s even a little patch of shared DNA “down under”! These are the “Aha!” experiences that make the time and dollar spent well worth it.

I’ve never viewed this journey as anything other than a means to feed my curiosity about family, history, Italy. What I never expected to encounter is so many people seeking to fill the blank spaces in their personal histories. I’ve known several people, adopted at birth, who searched for their biological parents years ago, before online genealogy, before widely available DNA testing. This was a daunting task as in many states adoption records are permanently sealed. In several cases, their searches were productive, and ended happily; in others, the journey was fruitless, either because they reached a dead end, or worse, because they were rejected. I can’t imagine the courage this took, or the degree of heartbreak for those who were turned away. To be clear, I’m talking about several people over my lifetime. To be clear, I’m talking about several people over my lifetime. Today, with online genealogy platforms, there must be millions of people in search of their biological families.

My parents were born in 1908 and 1914, to immigrant parents of 12 and 14 children. It was a different time, with different social norms. The fathers in their families had routinely come to the US first, to find work and save enough money to marry, or to bring their wives and children here. They went back and forth to Italy. Who knows what happened during these separations? My parents’ young lives were marked by World War I, the Spanish flu, and—especially—World War II, when one after another, the young men joined up and left home, knowing full well they might not return. Who could blame any of them harshly for seeking comfort in a 48-hour pass, or in the distant city where they were stationed? And let’s not forget Korea and then, a generation later, Viet Nam.

Among my matches, in families that a few generations ago routinely had ten or more children, I now know of many question marks. I’ve messaged or conversed with some of these “extended” or “distant” family members, welcomed them, and told them I’d help in any way I can. It just seems like the right thing to do. While nothing regarding my own parents has turned up (which I didn’t really expect as I know their individual histories at a micro level), I wouldn’t love them less if it had. As the wife of one of my new “surprise” cousins so wisely put it, “We look back but we don’t judge.” She’s wise beyond her years.

All of my aunts and uncles, the ones who might have been able to shed light on these “surprise” relationships, are gone. There is so much that I will never know for certain. How many times have I wished I had questioned more, had listened more carefully! My advice to my younger friends (including my adult children): while you may think now that none of this is important, someday you’ll wish you’d paid more attention. It’s tempting to give it all a French shrug and simply say that none of this matters. But I beg to differ: who we come from is part (though not all) of who we are. I’m the same person I was before these matches starting showing up, but there’s more to me than I ever could have imagined. To all of us, really.

Photo: My first-generation Italian-American father’s baptismal certificate, in French, from the French-Canadian church in his hometown of Rumford, Maine.

11 thoughts on “Inside that rabbit hole: a progress report

  1. Debbie

    Your advice is so, as we used to say, “Right On”!
    We spent so much time talking with our parents and aunts/uncles and cousins but years later realize that we don’t know much about our family history.
    I too wish I had asked more questions. I have nieces and nephews now who want some family history information and I can’t help them.
    Continue to Spread the Word to Ask questions, Embrace the stories and above all to continue to Listen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. automatic gardener

    I have one side of my family that kept very good records and was always aware of those ancestors. I have been piecing together the other side, which hasn’t been too hard as most stayed put when they came over. Although almost every person in my family is German (PA Dutch), I have one set of Irish great-grandparents and their DNA is dominate in my test.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maria Galeota

    A very thoughtful and beautiful essay on needing and wanting to know our histories and place in this world. Very happy to know we really are cousins….perhaps one day soon we can meet.
    I understand completely the frustration of having so many questions and no one to ask….I read the postings on Amici Di Centrache and see many names I remember hearing about but don’t know their connection to my family nor to me today.
    I do realize there is a larger connection that I cannot complete but I am content with my roots and know that there are many beautiful and wonderful paisani in my DNA. Grazie, mi bella cugina Angela. 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

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