The Family Stories in Your DNA
My mom never made me a traditional baby book.
Instead, she made a book of family history. On the first page she drew a tree, and wrote the names of my relatives across its branches. Then she conducted family interviews and captured their stories.
I didn't appreciate Mom's efforts until later in life, when I became curious about my ancestors. Only then did I realize the importance of the book and the stories it contains.
Thanks to Mom, I now know that my maternal great-grandmother wrote poetry and read tea leaves. I know that my paternal great-grandfather dreamed of becoming a hobo, and followed that dream at 16 by leaving home to ride the rails. I never got to meet either one, but their words and lives crackle off the page.
It’s stories like theirs I crave when I do my own genealogical research.
Unlike my mom in the 1980s, I have access to online databases of census records, digitized newspapers and other people’s trees. But meaningful stories are much harder to find. In most cases I have to build them myself by piecing together names, dates and other facts. All other details have been lost to the passage of time.
This is my love/hate relationship with modern genealogy.
We have instant access to more information now than at any other point in history. For $99 and a vial of blood, we can even have scientists map our DNA and connect us with distant relatives. But many family stories remain shrouded in mystery.
“As a culture, we like simple solutions,” writes Alva Noë of NPR. “And the idea that who, and what, we really are is written in the language of the genome, that it is inside us—and that we need only send away to have it decoded—is almost irresistible. But … the stories that matter … are sagas of marriage and migration, of child rearing, hard work and love. It is family that matters—and family is relationship, not DNA.”
I still find value in online genealogy tools. And one day, I might even spring to have my DNA mapped. But for now, I’m keeping the bulk of my research close to home. Like Mom, I’m interviewing family members, collecting stories—and learning who I am in the process.