Family Ties

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It’s been almost a year since I wrote about my genetic testing results from 23andMe. That’s because, despite paying $5 a month for the site’s mandatory Personal Genome Service®, I rarely look at it.

It’s not that I’m scared of the data (been there), and not because I forgot — every six or eight weeks I get an email from the company saying things like, You have 8 new results from 23andMe! New discoveries have been made about your DNA! I hadn’t visited the site because, frankly, I was bored of it. How many times is one expected to look sort-of-interesting, sort-of-meaningless risk calculations and ponder healthier ways to live?

Then at a conference last week, while trying to make small talk with a scientist, I mentioned my 23andMe subscription. Turns out he has one, too. “Isn’t it funny when you get those messages from your distant relatives?” he said. I told him I didn’t know what he meant. “I get them all the time,” he said, shaking his head.

Back at my desk Monday morning I found myself on my 23andMe page, staring at 20 new messages in my 23andMe inbox. All had the same subject line: “A relative would like to make contact with you.” I clicked on one and saw a tiny square photo of the sender’s face, and this message (photos have been dropped, names changed and text truncated):

5th Cousin
Sarah Ryan
Residence: United States
Ancestry: Northern Europe
Maternal Haplogroup H24

23andMe has identified us as potential relatives. I would love to see if we can find the common relative…Because I was curious about health issues and finding more about distant relatives I joined 23andme. Now I find many of my matches go in different directions. I am sure all these pieces will fit somehow…I love seeing how the migration of this family takes so many twists and turns…talking to people I am related to is fascinating.

I clicked on another:

5th Cousin
James Burke
Residence: United States
Ancestry: Northern Europe
Maternal Haplogroup T1a1
Paternal Haplogroup R1a1a*

Hi,

Through our shared DNA, 23andMe has identified us as relatives. Our predicted relationship is 5th Cousin, with a likely range of 3rd to 10th Cousin. Would you like to explore our relationship?

And another:

4th Cousin
Erik Brevig
Residence: United States
Ancestry: Northern Europe
Maternal Haplogroup V
Paternal Haplogroup R1a1a*

Hello,

I am a Norwegian American…I am part of a large family tree collaboration through Giants of the Earth Heritage Center. We are triangulating various genetic relationships to authoritatively merge family trees and discover lost farm homesteads in the old countries.

Enough, enough. I called my younger sister, who’s visiting me this week, over to the computer. “Aren’t these people creepy?!” I said.

“Oh Ginny, you should friend them,” she said. “They’re related to us!”

Genealogical titillation isn’t some new byproduct of the genomic revolution, of course. Our father was obsessed with tracing his roots. He began in earnest in the 1960s, making pedigree chart after chart, filling in holes after fact-finding trips from his home in Michigan to cemeteries and libraries in North Dakota and Minnesota and who knows where else. About 10 years ago, he moved his hunt online. He transferred his hand-written pedigrees onto the Family Tree Maker computer program. He scoured Amazon and AbeBooks for rare books, so old their spines disintegrate with each touch, full of names and deeds and other official records. He had long, back-and-forth email conversations with “relatives” registered on sites like Ancestry.com.

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After he died, my sister and I didn’t know what to do with the products of all this meticulous detective work. I have a yellowing piece of paper hanging on my office wall that certifies him (and therefore, me) as a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. And my Gmail archives are full of his 500-word biographies and sloppily scanned photographs of this or that ancestor (like his favorite, Alexander Hughes, at left, who was an entrepreneur and legislator in the Dakota Territory). But the bulk of the work sits in cardboard boxes in a closet in Michigan.

Intrigued by my sister’s sympathetic reaction to our long (long) lost 23andMe relatives, I took a closer look at their head shots. We all look vaguely similar: pale, ruddy, sturdy. And I have no trouble believing that our great-grandparents’ grandparents once broke bread together in pale, ruddy, sturdy communities in Norway and Ireland.

But that doesn’t answer the question that I used to ask my father, with a little too much exasperation, over and over again. What makes these ancestral connections so fascinating? And why would anybody want to share intimate family details with people who are, in every way that matters, complete strangers?

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing