A few months ago, I spit in a medical tube and sent it off to 23andMe, a genetic testing company handsomely funded by Silicon Valley heavy-hitters. At $199 a pop, you too can find out more about your genetic ancestry, predisposition to illness due to carrier traits, or laugh at ethnic features you may/may not have like a uni-brow! For the record, if you have a mirror, you can ascertain your level of uni-brow carrier status for free.
My curiosity to get the results of a DNA test is part of a tremendous wave of self-discovery I’m riding, and I’m incredibly privileged to have the ability to do so. I’ve spent years retracing the steps of my life, and the results of this test didn’t matter much to me — except to add one more component, a nearly invisible cellular one, to the messy, complex masterpiece of my life.
What did I learn, you ask? I’m exactly 0.2% sub-Saharan African — fan-fucking-tastic! I also happen to be a higher percentage of Neanderthal than most, which explains, well, just about nothing.
In a day of beautifully shifting family structures, and paths to procreation, biology is a hot topic and everyone has an opinion. Generations of wars and drama over bloodlines, birthing sons, and bullshit, I have to question if genetic matter really even matters that much anymore?
As the daughter of a history teacher, my summers were spent going on adventures in our back yard, or to some far-off land when the budget permitted. With my mother as a guide, walking down the street was not just about exercise, looking at the trees, or smelling the flowers. I have countless memories (Girl Scout camp, walking Appalachian trails in upstate New York, Visiting Niagara Falls) of her telling us the stories of the people who inhabited the land before we walked on it. We learned about the Native Americans whittling small fragments of obsidian into arrowheads, and the Druid people of Ireland creating temples of stone. I had to feel my surroundings in order to take in the elaborate stories she told, uncovering a level of existence that was deeper, imaginative, and oh-so-real. This level of existence was, and still is, completely beyond what my traditional senses can take in.
My test revealed that about 50% of my heritage is Southern and Eastern European, with relative certainty that at least 6% (likely, much more) is from the Balkan’s — a region loosely encompassing modern-day Hungry, Croatia, Romania, Greece, and Bosnia.
Last summer, with my historical-buff mom, I went on a wild adventure in search of our heritage in Croatia. FIVE YEARS, from apartment to house, my DK’s guide to Croatia posed from various perches in my home, squawking at times, reminding me that our voyage was inevitable. Those five years brought cancer to my mom’s body, babies to our family, broken hearts, some good fortune, and loss. During those five years, I had to say goodbye to my little Croatian grandma — Helen (Skok) Goetz.
After days soaking in the sun on the coast, taking in the fresh fish and Croatian wine, we made our way north to a little region named Zumberak, just outside of the Capitol, Gripping the side door handle of our midget-sized European vehicle, my mother drove like a terror and I found myself saying a few Hail Mary’s in hopes that this long-overdue voyage was not my last! Fixing my sights on something still, I took in one of the many gorgeous German-style homes, abundantly covered with foliage, tucked behind a large water mill churning slowly. I hadn’t come across one person yet, which lead me to believe (with a high degree of certainty) that this was where ALL THE GARDEN GNOMES in the world came from. Mystery solved.
We were two brightly dressed, gum chewing, English-only speaking Americans far far from home. Ignited with excitement, but painfully lost, we pulled over to ask the first person we saw for directions — a small farmer with crooked teeth, and a loud scrappy dog at his feet. We were headed to the church of St. Mary Magdalene, a portal to our family part. As if to justify our presence in this remote, precious space, we handed the man official copies of our family marriage certificates and birth records, displaying in Croatian cursive the location of the church. He smiled, said nothing, and pointed up to a white structure on the hill.
Smartly placed at the highest point among a collection of small villages, we drove up to the Church. Sticky and hot from the ride, I stood outside of it and felt a rush of my ancestry in the breeze. My Great Great Grandmother Kata Kolic was the third wife of my Great Great Grandfather. She had three children, one of which ended up being my Great Grandmother Cecilia, who ventured to America in her early 20’s. Cecilia gave birth to my grandma… Helen. The sunniest, sweetest, purist light I’ve ever encountered in my life.
I stood on this hill, in a remote village thousands of miles from home, and looked out over the land of my ancestors. I felt my mother’s hand on my back. I felt my grandma’s belly laughter, knowing she had to be with us. I stool on a hill looking at the land of all of our ancestors.
Honoring the science that made me, I’ll return to the question: “does our genetic matter, matter?” Well, yes, because it reveals a little bit more about who we are. My coworker actually discovered he was adopted (and not Irish — but Jewish!) and connected with his whole biological family because he dug into genetic testing! It matters. However, it only matters because it’s one color in the pallet we use to create our complex living masterpiece.
I’ll argue that beyond the DNA, it’s our common ancestry — the stories we hear and tell about generations that have come before us — that matters more. That day, standing outside a church that baptized generations of women in my family, I learned that we cannot rely on physical matter alone to tell a story. We cannot rely on our senses to capture the full picture. The most scientific tests of our physical selves might connect us in new ways and makes some sense of our existence, but I truly believe that if we’re patient enough to just stand quietly, maybe on a hill in some remote village, we can feel a story the pre-dates and transcends our body.
Onward and upward, strange one.