When people ask me my heritage I say I’m Italian American. Thanks to my Mom, the family historian, I have a pretty good idea of where my family came from in Italy and when they arrived in America. In my Christmas stocking this year was an Ancestry DNA kit from my husband. He explained it was on sale and he thought it might be fun. So, I spit into the provided canister and mailed it off. Seven weeks later I received an email detailing my DNA results. I am 68 percent Europe South, which means Italian. I knew that result before I mailed in my sample. What I didn’t expect was the nearly 12 percent of my result from Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland/Wales. It left me wondering about my ancestors. Who were they? This lead to an even more critical question: Who am I?
Katie Barry Ishibashi, a mom living in Brooklyn, NY, initially bought a test after hearing positive stories from friends. The results of others was enough to pique her interest. “I knew a few people who’d had crazy experiences with DNA tests,” Ishibashi said. “One person figured out who his biological father was when he matched with a half sibling on 23andMe. Another person I know whose parents are from Thailand, discovered that for unknown reasons, she has 22 percent European DNA.” For Ishibashi her results were spot-on. “Most of my family were from Ireland, and it nailed the exact county in Ireland that many of my relatives came from. I also have some French Canadian ancestry, and it picked up that as well,” she said. There were a few surprises. “I got 2 percent South Asian, 2 percent Iberian, and 1 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. Now I know why I love red wine, latkes, and garam masala,” she said.
Susan O’Donnell, a garden designer in her retirement residing in Saratoga Springs, NY, received an Ancestry kit from a friend. “I was interested in learning more about my family,” she said. O’Donnell, having an educational background in biology, understands how Ancestry scientists express and dissect the DNA chain. She notes that having a cheek swab might be more exact, but providing a saliva sample provides a better and larger sample for scientists to examine. “The variations in a DNA sample is very small. Therefore, the results are very accurate,” she said. Like Ishibashi, O’Donnell also received a surprise in her results. “I know I’m mostly German and Dutch (so I thought), but my maternal great grandmother was supposedly Irish and there was no indication of being Irish at all,” O’Donnell said.
Ishibashi’s husband took the test and his results were disappointing. “Both his parents are from Japan, and his mom’s from Okinawa, a tropical island far south of mainland Japan,” she said. Ishibashi speculated that based on her mother-in-law’s looks there might be Polynesian in the family. “I was hoping Ancestry would clear that up, but instead it just returned “100% East Asian,” she said. For Ishibashi and her husband Ancestry did connect them with far removed family members. “I found two second cousins and a huge amount of 3rd and 4th cousins. The numbers weren’t a surprise. I knew there were lots of us,” she said. “One of my DNA matches saw me RSVP to an event on Facebook and sent me a message saying, “Hey! Fancy meeting you here!” We have the same second great-grandparents.” Ishibashi’s husband also found relatives through Ancestry. “He did find a bunch of fourth cousins in Hawaii, though, which was pretty cool because he doesn’t think of himself as having many relatives in the States. Their families probably came over under the Meiji Emperor, when a lot of workers from Okinawa went to Hawaii to work in sugarcane fields,” Ishabashi said. “It’s cool to see that history reflected.”
O’Donnell hasn’t connected with prospective relatives on Ancestry as of yet, but she hopes to connect with people that have well-researched family trees to learn more about her own immediate family. She said she did recognize names of third cousins on her father’s side of the family that she met as a child.
O’Donnell is not in a rush to do other DNA testing such as 23andMe. “Too much information might not be a good thing,” she said. “The way the health system is headed you might not get coverage if you test probable for a disease.” O’Donnell feels the Ancestry DNA test is much more benign. Ishibashi might consider doing 23andMe for its health screening component. “All I know right now is I don’t have the gene for cystic fibrosis, because I was tested for that during pregnancy,” she said. “It feels a little expensive and navel-gazey to get 23andMe right after doing Ancestry, but I’d like to do it eventually,” she said.
For Ishabashi, a busy working mom of a toddler, Ancestry has resulted in a personal mission. Ishibashi learned after she received her results from a cousin that her great-grandmother died young in the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918. She served in the United States Navy until she contracted the virus and was buried with full military honors in a cemetery in the Bronx. She never received a headstone. “Apparently, the Navy will provide one if we petition for it,” she said. “I’m working full time and parenting a 1-year-old and things seem too hectic right now to add fighting military bureaucracy to the mix, but it is something I would like to do eventually.”
Emily Marcason-Tolmie, a Saratoga native, is a writer, researcher, wife and mother. Emily and her husband, Ryan, are the parents to two wonderful little boys, ages 4 and 1.