DNA TESTS AND WHERE WE COME FROM
In the past few years, DNA tests have gained popularity. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have pulled back the curtain on millions of people’s lineages and, in a way, told them where they came from. We care a lot about DNA (we even have a day dedicated to its discovery on April 25), and what it can tell us about who we are. That’s not all genealogy tests have done, however. Some people have been led to long lost relatives or discovered their ancestors came from Poland instead of Ireland like they always thought. Genealogy databases, built from the DNA samples people have voluntarily sent in, have also helped law enforcement solve a number of cold cases, and it even led to an arrest in the case of the Golden State Killer in California a few years ago. While some have raised valid concerns about the potential abuse of these massive DNA databases, by and large, they illuminate the past — even as the past becomes less and less important in deciding our futures. I’ve never done any of the genealogy tests. It’s not that I’m not interested in my family or where I came from; I’m more interested in the family stories we pass down than the science or data of my lineage. About 20 years ago, before any of these companies existed, my in-laws made a hobby out of discovering the stories of their ancestors by visiting towns, churches, and courthouses all over the country. They poured over birth, baptism, marriage, and death records and traced family connections. During their search, they confirmed a lot of family stories, including one of my favorites — that during the 1920s, as a young man, my wife’s grandfather actually had to leave town after shooting two would-be burglars in his shop in Peoria, Illinois, because they turned out to be mobsters. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t settled in Milwaukee and married Kathy’s grandmother — but shooting those guys turned out good for me! A DNA test can’t tell you a story like that! My side of the family has a bunch of great stories, too, like my grandmother chewing out one of my uncles and a pool hall owner for letting underage kids skip school and hang out there (while two other uncles hid under a pool table), an uncle faking his age to fight in World War II, and another who came home from the war to find his family had moved without telling him (thankfully only a few blocks away). Then there’s the one about a great- or great-great-grandfather from Ireland who was given a choice as a teenager: jail or America. We have lots of other inspiring stories about what it was like
for people to start over with almost nothing, or at a very young age, and why they came (opportunity, love, boredom, and hunger probably all played a part).
As cool as it is to know your ancestry, I’d rather believe all the colorful stories about my family’s past. Plus, I think one of the great things about our country is how little our roots define us anymore. By and large, most people have the opportunities to rise above their station in life, to really change their lives due to technology and so much available information, now more than ever. For a long time, the family we came from defined who we were. If your father was a farmer, or a blacksmith, or an aristocrat, that’s probably what you would have been as well. But people in this country broke that cycle through opportunity, ideas, freedom, hard work, and a lot of other skills. A lot of the people who came to the United States initially did so to escape a world where they had no say in their lives, no real opportunity or chance to do better. I think that’s one of the reasons the United States is such a prosperous country. No one really tells us what we have to do (even with an election coming up), or if they try, we don’t have to listen. When people can move where they want and work according to their passions, everyone wins. What’s more, when everyone has the chance to build their own life, they create even better opportunities for their children. And if I ever take one of those tests and it comes back saying my ancestors aren’t from Ireland, well, I’ll just say it’s blarney, you know, and still celebrate St. Patrick’s Day! -Frank Kearney
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