Since receiving my test results from 23andme — a service that analyzes an individual’s DNA and provides the tools to learn about one’s ancestry — I’ve been a basket case.
I’m not bothered by the abundance of somewhat troubling yet thought provoking information the examination of my genes yielded, such as my disease risks, carrier status, or the fact that 2.8% of my DNA comes from Neanderthals. Rather, I’m disturbed because the results kicked open the floodgates to even more questions about my genes and whomever else might be swimming in their proverbial pool, which triggered a post-midnight subscription to ancestry.com and a veritable obsession for piecing together my family tree.
I have now spent way too many sleepless nights toggling back and forth between 23andme, ancestry.com, and Google, cross-referencing my ass off. Often I get so lost in the process of discovery that I lose track of time. The more nuggets I uncover, the more I want to keep digging. And dig I do, usually until I reach the point at which I become so completely overwhelmed by familial and genomic info that I glaze over, unable to process it all.
Naturally, I began with some knowledge of my family history. But the quality and quantity of information I’ve uncovered through these outlets is mindboggling. That all of this data is accessible to anyone and everyone on the Internet is yet more remarkable.
For a long time, the Y chromosome side of my family was never discussed much — my parents went through an acrimonious divorce when I was 3-years-old, and we moved far away from them as a result. I had little contact with my father. All I knew was that there were lawyers, judges, and a congressman on his side…and that was that. I barely remembered what the man looked like. Then I discovered last week that I could buy pictures of my great grandparents and great uncle on ebay and Getty Images.
Since I have identified only with my mother’s side for most of my life, I never even imagined what my paternal great grandparents might look like, let alone what sort of legacy they had left behind. Seeing their images for the first time literally took my breath away. I could see myself in their faces. It felt as though a long-blocked artery had been opened so that energy could flow to a part of me I had shut down.
In just a week of this connecting-the-dots business, I have discovered some significant details pertinent to the half-told stories and guarded secrets I was fed throughout my life — in public records on the freakin’ internet. But I often have to ask myself: To what end?
My answer is always the same: Who cares?
Like life, the unraveling of the mystery of being human is exhilarating, exasperating, joyous, sad, frustrating, and so on. Thankfully, when I become verklempt and overwhelmed by the wonder of it all, my no-bullshit Australian husband is always able to put things in perspective by reminding me that my predominantly Eastern European roots explain my fondness for vodka and caviar.