St. Patrick’s Day to me has always been a day to watch from the sidelines as Irish neighbors celebrated shamrocks, Brigadoon, and green dye in the Chicago River. Other than drinking green beer in college, my biggest St. Patrick’s Day activity was in grade school. We upper grade boys would celebrate the day by taping Protestant orange shamrocks to the door of a very Catholic Irish teacher’s classroom and hear his oaths (always colorful but very PG) echo down the hallways. This stunt was more a coming of age test for sixth grade boys, than a true insult against the Irish people. You had to visit the Principal's Office at least once before graduating to middle school.
So, I never thought much about the day. Family wisdom said I was at least half-German on my Dad’s side (“Pure German,” he was proud to say) and French and German and a little bit of this and that on my mother’s side. The most romantic and historic tale of my mom’s family was of a great, great, great grandmother, a Menominee princess who married an officer stationed at Fort Howard in the early 1800s. The officer’s name was Taylor, close relative of then fort commander, Zachary Taylor, the eventual 12th President of the United States.
Celebrate Bastille Day, sure. Celebrate Octoberfest, for sure. Even celebrate at the local Pow Wow in July. But celebrate wearing of the green? Not so much.
Now, through the science of genetic testing, I’ve discovered that stories of my great grandparents have a little bit of blarney in them. At the urging of a sister and after watching too many episodes of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” I decided to have my DNA tested to confirm my dominant German and French ancestry.
I sent the spit test to the organization, 23 and Me, and quickly received the results. First, of my Dad’s proud claim to be of “Pure German” stock? The DNA says not so fast. I test at about 45-percent French and German heritage. If I was half German from my Dad’s "pure" side, that number should have been well over 50-percent. At 45-percent, someone somewhere had been diluting the Fatherland's gene pool and not telling about it. So, where did the rest of the 65-percent of me come from?
The second largest marker, a little over 30-percent, was labeled “Broadly Northwestern European.” That could include Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the far northern edges of France and Germany. Norway, Sweden and Iceland are also included in that total indicated by a 2.8-percent trace of Scandinavia. And, to my surprise, my third largest marker (almost 10 percent) is from the United Kingdom and Ireland. That means someone on my great grandparents level had to have had dominant Irish or British ancestry. Blimey! Or should I say, "Happy Lá Fheile Padraig.” Is it hard to learn Gaelic? German has been beyond me.
And, the DNA marker of 1.2 percent Native American confirms my mother’s story about my Menominee multiple great grandmother. For some reason I feel more pride in that than in being a distant relative of US President.
I wonder why family lore about my other “greats” have not been not as accurate. It’s possible that back in the day, one was not sure which stories of grandparents were true and which were not. In some unconnected families, I imagine, the past is just a shadow of untold heresay. While my DNA revelation has not been as dramatic as those who appear on Mr. Gates’ show (though my naturally blonde sister now feels vindicated by light-haired Scandinavian and Irish markers after being teased in a family of dark-haired siblings), the tests make me think of a side of me that I have not known before. As a writer, I wish I knew more of the stories that have been lost along the way. Perhaps that’s the Irish in me peeping out.
Before the 23 and Me report, I could blame my dominant German heritage for my stubbornness, for my weight gains, and for my inability to go against traffic signs. Now, I guess I should let a little of my other ancestry out every once in a while. What do you think? James Joyce rather than Herman Hess? Irish River Dance rather than Polka OmPaPa? Guiness rather than Dopplebock? Or maybe I should just close with a post-St. Patrick's Day traditional blessing from my new-found ancestors: “May you have warm words on a cold evening, A full moon on a dark night, And the road downhill all the way to your door.”