A Thread, A Feather, A Windward Leaf

I am disoriented, the world around me murky, as I grasp for answers. The at-home DNA test results I’m viewing this Friday afternoon show that a quarter of my biological makeup is originated from Japan. This is impossible, you see, because I am descended from a long line of proud Germans and a cuvée of English, Irish, and French. Both sides of my family have done the genealogy to prove it.

Bewildered, I navigate to the Family Tree, mostly bare with dotted lines for the names of relatives I know by heart, but who have not submitted their own biological building blocks to be meticulously analyzed. There are a few names I recognize on my mother’s side: a first cousin who now lives abroad, a distant cousin I last saw at a Thanksgiving gathering about 20 years ago, a woman who shares the same last name as my grandfather. Other names and thumbnail photographs of faces I’ve never met. My mind is generating theories. Perhaps this brand of DNA test just isn’t as popular as others. Maybe Dad’s side haven’t submitted DNA since they are certain of their origins in Germany. I see no one with my maiden name, but there is a surname, Hibler, that is similar to my paternal grandmother’s maiden name. Could it be a misspelling? Was it anglicized when they emigrated? I send another follow up text message to Dad to ask if it rings a bell.

In the gap between my question and his answer, I think of the myriad times I’ve been back to Dad’s hometown since I was a child, arriving after a long journey in the back of a minivan with a stiff neck and a little dried saliva on my cheek. Bleary-eyed, we would emerge from between rolling waves of corn like the Israelites from the Red Sea if the desert were less arid and more attractive to ConAgra. We’d stop first at Grandma’s house to unload some luggage, stretch our legs, and make small talk while I eyed up her candy dish of Werther’s Originals. After an hour or two we would drive over to the family farm a few miles away, where Dad and his two brothers spent their adolescence and where my cousin, Matt, and his family still run the operation alongside my Uncle Reynold.

From the vantage point of the long gravel driveway, the farm looks like it could be cut from a classic postcard. The white farmhouse is now outfitted with a wraparound porch (an addition some time after Dad had moved away), and there’s always been at least one German Shepherd whose barking will make you triple check that you’ve got the right address. More than once I’ve sat immobile in the car, hatching an escape route in case the dog forgets I’m related to her people.  The original barn stands in the classic red and white Midwest uniform, and in recent years they’ve added additional large shop buildings and engineered an impressive grain silo and truck-loading facility. It’s a whole thing.

While Dad would make his way down to the shop to do man things with the guys, surrounded by tractors and other larger-than-life farming implements, Mom and I would shout, “Hello!” while simultaneously letting ourselves into the kitchen. In the early days we might find Aunt Barb soaking some sweet corn for dinner or tidying up her otherwise immaculate house; Kellie and I would wander upstairs to do whatever preteen girls do — admire a collection of stuffed animals, talk about school, or spy on the rest of the family walking back and forth on the lawn outside.

If we stayed through Sunday, which we almost always did, it was imperative that we attend the Sunday morning Lutheran church service. I knew not to wear high heels to this event, because to get inside the building we’d drive for about a mile on a white gravel drive, kicking up clouds of dust that looked more like a dense fog. More than once I’d teetered over the rocky road precariously walking from the car to the church building, praying I wouldn’t turn my ankle and embarrass my entire family line before we got inside. I always had the sense that they knew we were coming ahead of time and were watching the road as if in advance of a parade.

The outside of the Trinity Lutheran Church building was fitted with white siding and a stately steeple; inside the nave of the church were prim and perfect rows of wooden pews facing an intricately painted altar, complete with a large statue of Jesus in purple and yellow robes. As a child, I felt like Technicolor Jesus and I could have shared clothing, we were so similar in size.

It’s the basement of that church that I envision now as I consider my 9% German DNA. Downstairs from the sanctuary is a portion of the wood-paneled fellowship hall papered over with family portraits. Some are official framed family photos, some are printed in black and white on paper, and all bear the names of family lineages. Multiple generations. Dietrich. Engel. Andorf. Müller. Badenhurst. Schroeder. Engelhardt. Each pale face staring hard at the camera as if this picture is just one more burden — one more task they must complete to fulfill their duty as upstanding citizens. They look tired (and a little pissed off). Over the years I’ve met several of the great-aunts and great-uncles or cousins once and twice removed, many of which are descended from the people in these photos. I can never remember exactly who is related to whom and who is merely a neighbor, but it’s safe to say that even neighbors are family after years in the same community. Everyone’s fate feels intertwined.

I go back to diagramming family relationships on the back of a napkin. The DNA match with my maternal first cousin means that we definitely share a grandmother. Here I’m connected to this surname Hugoe, which matches my maternal grandfather. I know that Mom’s parents divorced and remarried more than once, so I start to wonder if there are more secrets held over from that generation, passed down to us quietly amidst the chaos of blended families and hardship.

Mom calls me with the answers to some genealogical questions I’ve sent her. She confirms the vague memory that my great great grandmother was nicknamed “Tiny Grandma,” and was part Indian. Could her ethnicity have been misattributed during that time in Texas? I begin constructing a nest from the small details I glean –each hunch becomes a thread, a feather, a windward leaf as I try to make sense of this information. I flit from here and there sending cryptic messages to the unfamiliar connections with whom I share part of my self via the 23andMe website. I tell them I’ve just gotten my results and would be interested in discussing which ancestors we have in common. I reactivate an old Ancestry.com account and begin scraping the database for the vital records and newspaper clippings of grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. There is no rest. There is no stop. There is only the perpetual roving — a frenetic mental movement to push ever forward. The thrumming between my ears becomes a word, chanted in monastic rhythm: More. More. MORE.

Although this mystery of the Japanese DNA initiates a Nancy Drew-like investigation on my part, I wish I could say that I am completely scientific in my approach. Yes, I have an articulated list of possibilities written out, however, when my brother jokes, “Are you thinking Mom isn’t telling you something?” I immediately laugh it off and tell him my theory of Tiny Grandma’s true ethnicity. I am fixated on the assumption that the secret is generations removed and born of a time when the Texas census responses were handwritten and often misspelled or illegible. After all, I reason, it would have behooved her to assimilate into White culture in a Southern farming community in the 1890s.

Around 6:00 in the evening, I press pause on my scrambled research and join my husband and some friends on a social distancing “Happy Hour” via online web conference. We are among the throngs of people who have turned to digital engagement to try to stay connected in the age of COVID-19. We’ve fixed ourselves cocktails and are sitting in the upstairs office, side by side, grateful for some semblance of togetherness as we regale them with anecdotes about our dog, Arrow, and exchange updates about job status, headlines we’ve read, and funny Internet memes. One part of my brain has been expecting a call from Mom, and I’m subtly checking the clock on my cell phone every 15 minutes or so.

Finally, at 7:00, a few hours earlier than anticipated, I see the incoming call and duck out of the room to answer. Finding an isolated spot in the kitchen downstairs where I can lean nervously against the counter, I say, “Hi there!” There’s a buzzing energy in the air as I hear her greet me, and without hesitation she says, ” There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll just say it.”

This is not the first life moment where I’ve received difficult news, and I meet it dry-eyed, measured, even. It’s as if I’ve gained the superhuman power to move faster than time, and so from my vantage point each detail Mom shares is lofted smoothly into the air, drifting calmly toward me. I gather them from their suspended trajectory, as if to set the details down on the counter top for later inspection. My peripheral vision is a swirling mist, but I am focused on making sure that she (and our family) will survive.

There was an ex-boyfriend. She and Dad were on a break. The ex-boyfriend was half-Japanese. She is very remorseful. She has found an obituary from 2012. Will I be okay? She has told Dad. He has gone on a drive.

Mom and I hang up the phone. Time returns to its standard cadence, the transcript in my mind parrots our conversation back to me. I love you don’t focus on shame I will be okay I love you we will work through this I will call Dad make sure he’s not drinking I will be okay call me if you need me I will be okay I love you this will be hard everything will be okay I love you.

I leave a voicemail and text message for Dad: When you are ready, call me. I love you. Don’t drink about it. I sit back, hoping to get word that my life hasn’t completely unraveled in the matter of minutes I’ve been standing in this kitchen. The fresh knowledge of this secret, held for three and half decades, is moving through our family like a cyclone, and all I can do right now is wait to see where the houses land.

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