SHOW ME THE PROOF: DNA OR HANDWRITTEN LETTERS

SHOW ME THE PROOF:  DNA OR HANDWRITTEN LETTERS

In her book Nanaville, Anna Quindlen of The New York Times fame wrote: “Joan Didion once wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but I think we tell ourselves family stories in order to exist, to feel really real. This seems especially true nowadays. The independence and individuality of modern life need to be leavened with an understanding of our place at the table, and often today people find that through genealogy, which is undergoing an enormous boom.

“In decades past it was a bit beside the point: When I was growing up, almost every member not only of my father’s family but of his father’s family lived within an easy car ride. I was rooted firmly within the branches of my family tree, even though I often found it a tangle. But people are more mobile now, and spread around the country and the world, and as families have grown ever smaller that thirst to become part of something larger has grown, too.”

Quindlen went on, “I suppose that’s what some of my friends yearn for, knowing that they will never be grandparents.” Quindlen added, “Jorge Luis Borges said, ‘When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.” Quindlen went on, “When mothers die they leave children, and when nanas die they leave grandchildren and perhaps a trace memory of being coddled, kissed, attended to, and loved…’” What shall they say about this mother’s…this new grandmother’s, blog posts?

Being known as the family historian, I was not surprised when I received an email from my second cousin Myrna, asking if it would be okay to connect a woman who, like Myrna, tested her DNA and discovered a connection. Soon enough, an email came from a woman named Laura. She had been prompted by Myrna that I was busy becoming a first-time grandmother in Portland, Oregon, and preparing for our daughter from Los Angeles’s wedding in June.

I’m so glad that I started my family tree research when I did, prior to ancestry.com, television shows about genealogy, and DNA companies. The stories and facts, which I garnered from the sources, or found stored in boxes of handwritten correspondence, not to mention hours upon hours of videotaped interviews, actually bring the past to life. These things do so in a way that limited records and unsubstantiated relationships cannot match for authenticity and accuracy.

When I think about roadblocks to finding relatives, I think about my knowledge of various family names and their origins. Cousin Lois is the only one who could have given me her family birth name, which was Birnkrant. Throughout the years, before delving into genealogy, I knew her maiden name simply as Birns. From another branch of the same family, my Aunt Rose was the only one who could have told me the reason her daughter Joyce was given the middle name Netherlee. That was because it was the name of the hotel where Aunt Rose got pregnant with her only child on her honeymoon.

Possibly the name Netherlee was part of a lifelong tale, which my Aunt Rose derived joy from telling. Maybe she did repeat it to Joyce, but my cousin has “gone missing,” making the origins of that name impossible to trace. Aunt Rose was also the one who remembered her brother’s first wife had the maiden name Rose, like her own given name. That single clue made it possible for me to track down my long-lost cousin Alan (see my blog post dated May 7, 2019, “What Would Papa Say?”). Lucky for me, I had the foresight and the chance to interview or, at least, simply speak with very many aunts, uncles and cousins; their character shines through.

The personal family stories stored in my memory bank, many of which are recorded in Kitchen Talk, bolstered by the known personalities and achievements of my relatives, are not anything like what I can hope to find from modern technology. A case in point came to my attention as I was writing this blog post. A Facebook “friend” happened to post that her DNA test results came in a week after her brother’s. The week before she noted quizzically, “Bros DNA results came back. 6% Swedish???? Where did that come from ???”

When my Facebook “friend” quipped, “DNA results in, I’m NOT Swedish so don’t know how bro is unless he had some fish for dinner before collecting saliva,” I thought, “I rest my case.” That said, although the names, which the woman who contacted me through Myrna listed as possible connections, did not ring any bells, nonetheless, I will contact her after things settle down in my life. Maybe she will even be extended an invitation to join us at the Friedman Family reunion being planned for here in the Garden State of New Jersey in 2020. One never knows what connections will be made.

Partial email from woman who found my cousin Myrna by testing her DNA-Myrna referred her to me, the family historian.

Partial email from woman who found my cousin Myrna by testing her DNA-Myrna referred her to me, the family historian.

Handwritten letter by a dear family friend after the death of my mother. Here he expresses his memories of my mother’s looks and intellect, which he sees in my daughter. No DNA testing could provide such a detailed account of the life of a family member.

Handwritten letter by a dear family friend after the death of my mother. Here he expresses his memories of my mother’s looks and intellect, which he sees in my daughter. No DNA testing could provide such a detailed account of the life of a family member.