Have you ever heard someone say that doing their DNA test changed them? I used to think that that was a bit silly, since I felt like much the same person that I was when I first got started with genetic genealogy several years ago.
But then I realized that I check my DNA matches every day, sometimes even more than once a day. I also manage more than a dozen kits of family members and friends who have enlisted my help, or have allowed me access to their results, and I check those results daily, too.
I checked my DNA while in the drive-thru at Starbucks, while on a tour at Colonial Williamsburg, at the airport in Montreal, while waiting for my kids to be done at their music lessons, while on the phone (sorry, mom!), and before I checked my e-mail most days.
Yeah, so that thing about me being the same person? I don’t think so.
I have changed and learned, and I thought by putting together this post, I could share with you what I learned during a year of (obsessively) checking my DNA matches every day.
#1 I don’t know everyone in my family
When I first did my DNA test, there was this mystery match. She showed up as a 1st-2nd cousin, but I had no idea who she was. Over the course of a few years, I figured out that she was not anyone that I already knew from my family.
I asked some of my other family members to do a DNA test – like aunts, uncles, and cousins – so I could narrow down the line of the family that my mystery cousin was on.
This year, I figured out for sure that she was a first cousin to my parent, and a first cousin once-removed to me. I sent her a message with the surname that I thought she shared with my parent, and within minutes, I received a reply.
She had grown up not knowing who her biological father was, and we were able to figure out pretty quickly which one of my parent’s uncles was her father.
What I learned from this experience is to keep an open mind about my family. You never know when it can “grow” unexpectedly in surprising ways! There is a good chance that I will meet more family someday, and I will welcome them with open arms.
#2 I have DNA relatives all over the world
In the past year, I have been in touch with DNA matches in England, Ireland, Australia, the Netherlands, and Serbia (read here about finding DNA matches in other countries). I have seen people on my match list from Poland and Germany, but I have still yet to reach out.
I wonder where all of your DNA relatives live?
#3 Patience is a virtue.
When I first did DNA several years ago, I didn’t really know what to expect. Would I just have tons of DNA matches and have all the answers to life’s mysteries immediately at my fingertips? Or would I be disappointed and never log in to my account again? The real answer is somewhere in between.
While I still had lots of questions after I first did my test, this past year of logging in every day to check my matches proved very fruitful. Gradually, over time, my DNA match list has grown from only a few dozen 4th cousin or closer matches to more than 300.
Each one of my new matches is a beautiful gem, with a spot waiting for them in my family jewels. This year, I got the answer to a lot of my questions, and realized that, over time, most of the rest of my questions will be answered, too.
#4 It all comes out in the wash!
Family secrets- even those from three or four generations ago – are often exposed when descendants of involved individuals do DNA testing. In this past year, a DNA match showed up for me that confirmed a rumor that my grandmother had a half-brother.
#5 Some people who do DNA tests aren’t interested in getting in touch with matches
My grandmother’s parents died when she was a young girl, and all of her siblings either went to live with other relatives, were adopted out, or were old enough to get by on their own. My grandmother was at an awkward age, and while she did live with a few foster families, she ended up spending the last few years of her childhood in an orphanage.
When she married and had kids, and her kids married and had kids, we never knew any relatives from her side of the family.
One of my goals with my family tree research was to learn more about my grandmother’s family, and hopefully, connect with some of the children of her brothers and sisters.
I’ve been excited to find several people who are descended from this family on my DNA match list over the past year. Unfortunately, beyond confirming their identity, no one is interested in maintaining any sort of relationship or even corresponding about family history.
#6 I have a favorite side of the family
There – I said it. I’m glad I got it off my chest. While it feels a little bit like I imagine it would to say that I have a favorite child (which I don’t, of course!), it’s true. I am more interested in researching my great-grandfather’s family than any other part of my family tree.
While I do occasionally spend time on both sides of my tree, there are some lines that I completely ignore, since I’ve learned what I have deemed as “enough” about those ancestors.
In every family, I would assume, there are secrets and sometimes sad stories, and maybe even traumatic events. There is one line of my family that is filled with people who inflicted lots of pain on their descendants, and indirectly, continue doing so.
This year, I learned that I am holding a grudge against them, and have shunned their line of my family, and their ancestry. Yes, I have included their names and the bare facts on my tree, but I can’t bear to learn more than that about them.
Am I the only one who feels like this?
#7 How to begin integrating what I have learned about my family into my life
I have ancestors from several different countries, but I grew up knowing very little about any particular cultural tradition. I still have lots to learn about my the customs and traditions of my Polish, Slovak, Dutch, German, English, Scottish, and Irish ancestors, but in this past year, I tried to integrate small traditions into our lives.
The favorite tradition that we started this year was our “Polish Christmas”, which is actually called “Wigilia” in Polish. Before I tell you about what we did, I want to explain why this was so important to me.
As I mentioned previously in this post, my grandmother spent the last years in her childhood in an orphanage because of the death of both of her parents. She had very little connection with her extended Polish or German family.
I never stop wondering that if circumstances had been different, would she have been able to teach my mother and myself about the cultures of her parents?
Would I have attended a traditional Polish Wigilia as a child? Maybe my mother would have, at least, and maybe she would have been able to teach me a few traditions and maybe even some recipes.
No matter – thanks to the internet, I was able to research different Polish Christmas traditions and put together a meal that made me feel closer to my Polish ancestors.
(Yes, there was meat at this particular Wigilia. The tradition of no meat has religious origins, and the church has rescinded the no meat requirement – and since my Polish great-grandfather wasn’t there to tell me not to, we enjoyed kielbasa and kabanos!)
I’m going to write an entire post about the experience sometime this year, hopefully in time for next year’s Wigilia – just in case there is anyone else out there who is interested in doing it for the first time, just like me.
Update: I did write this post (you can read it here). We celebrated Wigilia again last year – I think the tradition is going to stick!
#8 Some mysteries will probably never be solved
I have this cousin who shows up as a 4th-6th cousin for me. I never paid much attention to him, since he seemed distant, and I didn’t recognize anything from his tree.
As I mentioned before, several of my close family members did a DNA test with Ancestry this year.
Both my grandmother and her brother both tested, and they share significantly more with this mystery match. In fact, my grandmother’s brother shares so much DNA with the match that I have determined that there was mis-attributed paternity in either my line, or this cousin’s line.
They share more than 360 centimorgans of DNA, but there are no recognizable names in his family tree going back several generations on all lines.
I may never learn the truth, however, since the “mishap” likely occurred in the 1880s. Yes, there are records, but they are not nearly like they are now. Solving a 120 year-old mystery just might be a step beyond my abilities. I am not giving up, but I have resigned myself to the idea that I may never be 100% sure about the truth.
#9 Relationships are more than DNA
Over the past few years, I have learned a lot about the amounts of shared DNA between people of different relationship types. This past year, I discovered the actual amount of DNA that I share with several of my close and extended relatives.
Even though I might share more DNA with one person than someone else in my family, the depth and quality of our relationship goes way beyond the amount of DNA that we share.
In fact, there are family members that I only share a small amount with that I feel much closer to than people with whom I share a lot of DNA.
#10 I’m a little bit obsessed
I admit it: I am obsessed with genetic genealogy, and I don’t see my obsession going away any time soon. Especially with new DNA matches coming almost every day, there is still so much more to learn. It’s too much fun!
Do you ever find yourself looking at a strange and wondering how far back in your tree you would have to go to find their common ancestor? If so, you might be obsessed, too!
Did any of the lessons that I learned this past year resonate with you? I would love to hear from you in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by.