Sunday, September 28, 2014


So, my father was born in India - maybe the most exotic fact about me.  His family had made it their home, on his mother's side, since 1820. They were merchant marines.  My paternal grandfather was born in 1888 in London, a true cockney, within the sound of Bow Bells. He was stationed in Delhi with the British army, during the Raj.

My father was an olive skinned Englishman with green eyes. He lived a third of his life in India, a third in England and a third in the United States. After he passed away in 2002, my mother wondered whether there might have been Indian blood in his veins.

I thought I'd like to find out.  On my mother's side we had fairly solid British stock, from Yorkshire and Bucklebury, Berkshire (where Kate Middleton was born).  I'd read an article in The Atlantic about 23andMe. They offer straightforward DNA analysis. You can be as involved or uninvolved as you choose, once you get the initial results.

I was excited to solve the family mystery. Did I have Indian blood? I certainly hoped so. I ordered up a kit - for less than $100 - and when it arrived, I followed the instructions, spitting into a test tube, shaking the contents, and mailing it back in the postage paid box.

I waited.

The results, which came back in just a few weeks, were interesting but not particularly surprising.  Sadly, I did not have Indian blood.  Instead, 71.5% of my relatives, going back hundreds and hundreds of years, came from the British Isles. The remaining quarter came from Scandinavia, France and Germany, with a 1.5% smattering of Ashkenazi Jew.

I know there are people who love to work on their family trees. In fact, one of my cousins has done a lot of research on our history at the British Library. Some of it is interesting but most of it is not. She has traced beyond our maternal great grandfather - William Horsburgh Scott McPherson Adley (I absolutely love the name). She also discovered that one of our paternal great grandfathers worked in a railway station and went to prison for stealing parcels at the post office.

But do I feel connected to these people?

Now that I've learned a few specifics, I find I'm mostly bored by them. Maybe I was hoping for something different - some Indian blood for instance,  or a more exotic DNA.  Maybe I'm bored by the truth because in the 21st century, someone is always marketing connections.  When I received a message today from 23andMe, "You have new relatives!" I confess my eyes glazed over.  There are always new 'friends', new people waiting to endorse and be endorsed.  So now there are also new relatives?

There again, when I think of my ancestors in the abstract, I feel a kind of tenderness towards them. Who was that Ashkenazi, making his or her way into the family mix of English and Irish people, going back to the Stone Age, all of them cross breeding in their circumscribed lives? It also felt  poignant emailing these results to my immediate family, scattered as they are across the US west and east coasts, France, Australia and England- breaking the news that no, we sadly did not have Indian blood.  Not that it was a surprise, given that we all have pale skin and reddish hair.

My daughter Rozzie wrote from France, "I love that this email arrived simultaneously at various points all over the globe, to alert us to the fact that our ancestors lived on one island, as far back as the genetic eye can see."

Yes, I thought. There's that.
My ancestors. There again, who are they?

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