A World of Discovery: When DNA Doesn’t Add Up

After three weeks of staring at the order’s progress bar, my at-home DNA testing kit has been processed. I’ve texted my friends from college to joke about how many shades of mayonnaise will appear on the ancestry breakdown, but I’m actually curious to see if there are any thrilling discoveries. It’s true that I’ve never felt especially romantic about my German and Irish heritage. I have a first cousin who studied German in school and was smitten with the language and culture, passing up a Fulbright Scholarship to start her career abroad immediately after college. Other friends have been to Dublin and Galway and returned with tales of haunted Irish castles and pints of Guinness, but these destinations have been further down my travel list, after most of South America and a smattering of countries between the Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea. Maybe, just maybe, I could be convinced to bump them ahead in the queue if friends plan fun social trips in the next year or two.

DNA testing isn’t the first activity I’ve planned to fill my time during this banal COVID-19 cycle of sleeping, eating, Zoom calls and walking the dog. I’ve already read several novels that had been on my nightstand for months. Mailed away for a compendium of Flannery O’Connor works. Started a nutrition journal. Repainted a pantry. Racked up thousands of DuoLingo points practicing Spanish. Colored elaborate scenes in adult coloring books. So why not finally spit in a tube and mail it to a lab to see how much Neanderthal DNA I’ve inherited?

I’ve mentioned the test to my husband, Alex, in passing; his tepid response includes a comment about not wanting to give his DNA to corporations. Alex is used to my oft-spontaneous initiatives. However, while I think of them as whimsical and adventurous, he frequently tolerates my impulsivity with a not-so-subtle eye roll. I have no qualms about sharing my DNA after having read the copious disclaimers, however. I’ve read about how law enforcement used DNA databases to narrow the list of suspects in the Golden State Killer and Bear Brook cases, and as far as I’m concerned, sign me up. The world feels tenuous and broken, anyway, and I may as well be shouting, “C’est la vie!” and “LEEEROYYYY JENKINS!” as I click Accept on the Terms of Use.

Thus, as soon as I receive the email notification, I click the embedded link to log on to the 23andMe website, where this world of DNA discovery is waiting. The page is dense with information — tabs for ethnic and racial breakdown, genetic health indicators, likely physical traits, a page for my family tree. During the weeks-long wait for results, I’ve completed some of the voluntary research questions that the company poses to participants. Which is your dominant hand? Do you ever experience Restless Leg Syndrome? Do you taste soap when you eat cilantro? At this point, there’s not just one way to explore this page, and I’m hungry for the meat of it, so I go for the section that I find most interesting — Ancestry Composition. 

I see color-coding in a pie graph, the key expands when I click on the arrows. Each opened section drops down to offer up more information — 75.4% Northeastern European. No surprises there — I dissect it further. I’m 52.3% British and Irish. I click into that section; it takes me to a map of regions in the British isles, highlighting specific locations where my ancestors were most likely from, as well as ranked by where the most recent generations originated.

These numbers pull me to the stories of my maternal great-grandparents, both sets of which resided in the Lubbock area, a small city almost halfway up the length of the Texas Panhandle. My grandmother’s parents were one of the 33 families selected for a New Deal-era initiative called the Ropesville Resettlement Project. Those among the chosen few had survived the Great Depression only to meet a decade-long drought causing devastating dust storms across large swaths of the country’s farmland. Applicants who qualified had a track record of hard work, strong reputations among the community, and a pattern of debt repayment. According to my grandmother, Lena, prior to her birth her parents had lived in a grain silo together with another couple for a time. When they applied for one of the farmstead loans there were 1,200 other hopeful applicants. Lena’s parents obtained the right to live on a 120-acre farm and received a loan to plant the first year’s crops and obtain milk and livestock. Over time, they were expected to pay back the loan and would have the opportunity to buy the farm from the government.

There is a picture taken by Arthur Rothstein, one of President Roosevelt’s commissioned photographers, of my great grandparents standing at the doorway to their new farm; my great-grandmother, Jane, is pregnant with a son. He will be the first boy to be born on the project, and they will receive $50 as a congratulations gift for their fortune. She sweeps her left hand to her forehead, a grin on her face, as she blocks the sun from her eyes. My great grandfather, Emmette, leans against the doorframe with an angular jaw supporting a tight-lipped smile; the tan line of his hat falls squarely at his thick eyebrows. The wind is up, as evidenced by a few locks of Emmette’s dark hair and the swaying pant leg of his frayed coveralls. 85 years later, the prop master for a Netflix show will stumble across this photo and include it as plot point in a modern treasure-hunting story. The windfall of the Netflix show is different, but the desire is the same — Emmette and Jane’s legacy lies, not in the ocean, but in the land.

Their ancestors had also come from a long line of farmers, originating from the British Isles and filtering through Mississippi before making their way over to Texas. As was the custom, each generation had a bevvy of children and not enough pennies, making for expansive and gnarled branches of the family tree, decorated by cotton bolls and dust.

I claw my way back to the main Ancestry Composition report, having burrowed down several layers deep into the rabbit hole of British ancestry information. My eyes sweep the page, looking for familiar pieces of myself. French & German: 9%. Scandinavian: 3%. Broadly Northwestern European: 8%. I pause. Wait, only 9% German? This scant number seems odd given that my maiden name sounds like a type of bratwurst and that my father spent his 60th birthday visiting the small German village from which his grandparents emigrated. He’d told me all about standing outside the Lutheran church that his ancestors attended, and shared pictures of himself in front of modern shop signage that still bears the family name. Could there be secrets from the old country? My mind spins a yarn of excitement and intrigue in a far off land, illustrated in shades of gray.

And then I see it — at the bottom of the page, dangling as if it were the plumpest peach — 23.9% East Asian & Native American. The number breaks down further — 20.5% Japanese. 1% Korean. 1.2% Broadly East Asian. Even though the number is highlighted in red, I can’t make sense of what this could mean. My brain has already been running through a maze of possibilities, and this detail feels as if I’ve stumbled upon a hidden path, unfamiliar and bewildering in its placement.

I could tell you that I immediately know what this implies — that it is a grenade lobbed into my lap and the particles of my body begin rapidly expanding outward in a fiery blossom– but it isn’t like that at all. Instead, it is as if I’ve been overcome by an insatiable hunger, a rabid, frenetic compulsion for sustenance. The compulsion drives me from pantry to refrigerator, roving from room to room looking for a morsel of what will abate my appetite. My brain tastes different possibilities, unwrapping thoughts like candy bars. Great Grandmother Hazel’s mother was nicknamed “Tiny Grandma.” They said she was part Indian. Could it be? People crossed the Bering Land Bridge into the Americas to become Native American. Surely that’s it. My maternal grandparents have been remarried a few times. And on and on.

I begin a Word document on my computer and type out the various theories in a list, trying to make my approach methodical, rational, sleuth-like. I cross out and eliminate possibilities. I begin sketching out my known genealogy. I text my parents. I text my brother. Their collective responses are to effectively say, “Weird.” They offer no insight. I was not prepared for the magnitude of this discovery, and now despite attempting to go back to work, all I can think of is finding an explanation. What started as another frivolous hobby in the midst of a pandemic is now a full-fledged mystery of ethnicity and identity, and I’ve only begun to work the case.

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