Shared strands of DNA


The other day I was killing time on Facebook – which I find myself doing a lot these days.  I found my curser sitting in the search box, but I forgot who I was going to search for.  And while it wasn’t my original idea, I ended up typing my mother’s maiden name, which is highly unique and quite amusingly German. Let’s say it’s Swackenstrudel just for the hell of it.  When I find someone with the last name Swackenstrudel I know they are probably sort some of cousin – not too terribly distant, yet definitely not close   And the search results rendered two Swackenstrudels, both of whom I had heard of before.  I knew we were cousins of some sort.  I contemplated trying to befriend them and then decided not to.  I mean, just because we share a few strands of DNA, does it really gives us grounds to be friends – even by the very loose  Facebook standards?

Years ago, back before the Google founders hit puberty, back when Mosaic was the only browser commercially available, I did a similar search.  The fact that you could search phone books nationwide back then was a big fucking deal.  At the time I was looking for the only cousin I had ever had a relationship with, Vicki.  We had lost touch when my uncle/her father died back when I was 15 or so.  She was older and was already living in New York City working for Time Magazine back then.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find her when I typed in Swackenstrudel, but I did find one other Swackenstrudel in Colorado.  I vaguely remember my mother saying she had some family in Colorado, so I decided to write a letter to this fellow.  I don’t recall what I said, but I identified myself as a fellow Swackenstrudel and was wondering if he or any of his family remembered my mother.

I was deep in therapy back in those days, and with my therapist as my accomplice I was on a search to discover who my mother really was.  No, I was not adopted, nor did I lose her as a wee child.  My mother died when I was 22, which, while young, not so young that I shouldn’t know some family stories.  But there were none.  With the exception of her brother, my uncle, I knew nothing of her family.  She never spoke of it.  I never asked.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that was kind of weird.  My father was the same way.  I knew that on his side we had Aunts Lee, Bea and Glee in Colorado who sent us Christmas cards, but that was about it. So, after my father died, and the subsequent estrangement from my only brother, I guess there was a part of me who was looking to find some semblance of family connection.

With that handwritten letter sent to a Swackenstrudel in Colorado, I hit pay dirt.  While the fellow I wrote to never knew my mother, his mother, my mother’s cousin, did. He passed my letter along to her.  She enthusiastically wrote me back, thrilled to have reconnected with our rotting branch on the family tree.  Fortunately for me, her hobby was genealogy.

One day I received a small binder in the mail.  It was from my mother’s cousin.  She had compiled a notebook for me with pictures of my relatives going back to my great-great-grandfather.  She had handwritten a family tree for me, so I could understand how all these strangers were related to me.

I remember sitting there for a long time with that binder, trying on words like “my grandmother”, “my great-grandfather” and finding they didn’t fit.  It was fascinating, no doubt.  But these were just dead people in old black and white photos.  They meant nothing to me.  Even the color photos of my mother’s cousin’s living family that she included didn’t resonate.  I mean, they were lovely people, but again, I felt no connection.

I took that binder into my next therapy visit, hoping that perhaps in sharing it with someone who was invested in my search, might bring something out of me.  Nope.  I kept referring to the people in the pictures as my mother’s mother, my mother’s grandfather, etc. Joe, my therapist gently tried to get me to explore how I felt about seeing a picture of my grandmother for the first time.  Again, I resorted to calling her my “mother’s mother”.   There was nothing there.  They were family, but with none of my own memories attached to them.   So, if there is no relationship with your relations, it’s simply shared strands DNA, which doesn’t interest me all that much.

For the next few years my mother’s cousin sent me a Christmas card, complete with the annual family letter.  I would read it  some bewilderment. Anyone who was even vaguely related to her merited a mention.  The year I connected with her, I even got a mention.  She died about three years ago, and her husband, after one year, dropped me from the Christmas card list.  And that was OK, without my mother’s cousin who had shown me such kindness, the connection with her family was lost.

These days I’m OK with my very small and rather distant family circle.  My brother and I can now conduct civil discourse, and I’m Facebook friends with his kids who are really quite sweet (though a bit too goody-two-shoes-I-love-Jesus for my taste).  I even eventually found my cousin Vicki and have even visited her in New York.   It’s all good.

7 responses »

  1. Actually, I believe that as families evolve, it’s good to remember the old sometimes. I don’t know who my mother’s mother’s mother is 😉 but it’s pretty interesting and exciting to just know her name. Still searching. Everyone who may know this are already dead.

  2. I, too, find it odd when people with whom I’ve never had a relationship but who are part of my ‘extended family’ get in touch. Nice, but odd. Especially since as a human family we ALL share 99% of the same DNA. Our differences are minute in comparison with our similarities: okay so our skin, hair and eye colour varies we all eat the same way, reproduce the same way and defecate the same way! 😉

  3. It because of the global community that we are leaving relations behind. I mean, people want to survive relationships with people they live, work and be with. The far off relatives are no more important as friends and colleagues play that part in the century of global village and migration.

  4. i hope you kept the binder your mother’s cousin sent you. I know how difficult it is to follow the family tree backward. I have done it and have only gone back about three generations and that was extremely time consuming and frustrating.

    I think that in your case, where you nothing about them and there really was no connection at all, I can understand how and why you’d feel as if they were all strangers…because they were/are. There is more to family than just blood and DNA.

  5. There once was a Swackenstrudel named Vicki
    Whose genealogy was really quite tricky
    With a name like Swackenstrudel
    She could whip anyone’s wet noodle
    Maybe that’s how PeeWee’s seat got so sticky ?

  6. Gee

    It’s been ages since I read a post from you that sounded like it was about me. But this one certainly does. Substitute German for Swedish and mother for father and Colorado for the Natal South Coast and this is right on the money.

    My father cut himself off from his family for most of his life and we never really got to know anything about them. But at his funeral we finally met people who called themselves relatives and they filled in the blanks, told the stories and provided the photographs. That didn’t make a great impact on my life and I had very little in common with my newfound extended family. Like you, I was also never able to relate to any of my forbears. It was also my father’s father, my mother’s mother etc. They were all long gone by the time I was born.

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