When you hit your 40s something weird happens to people. Not everybody. Some people are still non-weird (which is very weird in itself). But the rest of us start to get all kinds of sentimental about family. And I was (am) one of this group of people. Maybe it’s that I’ve watched too many episodes of ‘Long Lost Family’, dreaming of a happy reunion with my own long lost baby half-brother, who is out there, somewhere in the world (hello Callum, if you’re reading this). Maybe it’s because of my growing, somewhat reluctant acceptance that my own breeding days are over, and that I sprouted only one live offspring, who represents everything my singular branch of the family DNA has to offer the world and the future of mankind (no pressure then, Jude). Maybe it’s because all my grandparents are dead, and quite a few of my parents’ friends have made a recent and seemingly sudden exit from the world, raising my hackles somewhat. Maybe it’s that my only son, Jude, is due to fly the nest later this year as he begins his adventures at university and my mothering days are more and more part time to dwindling. All these reasons and no doubt more…my own ticking clock…the encroaching ugh of peri-menopause…are making me think about family, my family, through somewhat rose tinted nostalgic glasses.
My mum has always been sentimental about family in a way that my dad never really was. She was the one organising family parties or visits, who’d remember every birthday, who’d not only remember the names of all our second cousins and first cousins three times removed (what DOES that mean?) but she’d remember their spouses’ names and the names of all their children in a way that incites as much awe in me as someone who can speak 12 languages, do long-multiplication in their head or juggle 4 live pigs whilst balancing on a balloon. Mum was the one who remembered, and kept alive all the *stories* in the family. So I grew up knowing more about my maternal great grandmother and various other long-dead family members whose lifetimes had never overlapped my own than I knew about some of my living cousins on my dad’s side.
I knew that a particular worn out bone-handled knife my mum used for peeling windfall apples and baking them into pies was one that her darling granny owned and used throughout her lifetime. Three generations (at least) of pie-bakers peeled fruit with that knife, and even as a child I wondered whether my sister or I would be bequeathed it one day, and if there would be much more than a nubbin left with which to clumsily smurge against the shiny apple skins by the time it made it into the hands of my generation. But I don’t really bake pies. I’d probably nip to Lidl and buy one.
I knew that a particularly feisty Great Great Aunt Gert was employed as a ‘tweeny’, a type of maid, in a big Victorian house where her employers treated her meanly. My mother would grin wickedly as she told me how this fabulous ancestor of ours was tasked with making and serving mince pies to the family of the house, whom she loathed with a passion, and so she SPAT in each individual mince pie before sealing in the embittered spittle with a fine pastry lid, and later serving them with a curtsey and a smile. That’s the kind of woman *I’M* descended from. More of a pie spitter than a pie baker. Some people puff up with pride that they are descended from some brave and decorated army general. I *glow* with joy that I share genes with the likes of someone who passive aggressively gobs into pastries for satisfying revenge (whilst maintaining a good employment record and her own sanity under pressure).
Stories and songs and funny ways have been passed down, usually mother to daughter, for generation upon generation. The lullabies that lulled my son to sleep as an infant, were the same that lulled my mum and possibly her mum before her. Love gets passed down. And I’m still reaping the love and the patiently-given time that the mother’s before me gave their daughters. I credit all of them with any ability I have to be a good mother to my own son, even though I never met most of them.
So imagine my joy and excitement at my last birthday, when wanting to encourage my natural and growing curiosity about my heritage, my partner, André, treated me to a DNA testing kit from ancestry.co.uk
This little postal kit, comes with a special tube where you have to spit (there’s a spitting theme growing in this blog) up to a line (too little or too much spit and it all goes wrong), and post your spit all the way to Ireland, where it is analysed by clever people, or probably by a computer these days, for your DNA. And from this they can tell the geographic spread of your ancestors from the last few hundred years and even match you with other people who’ve taken the test who they believe you are related to.
Since I’ve already spoken on this blog about my poo, fanny farts, and various deeply over-sharey topics, I think it’s only fair I tell you that there has always been a question mark over my genetic heritage. Well, not always…just since puberty. Because in the showers after gym class back at high school when my friends and I first noticed we were sprouting tufts of hair around our nethers, I became aware that there may have been something I didn’t know about my ancestors. While my friends were growing springy coiled bushes like a groovy 70s disco wig, my genitals decided that they were going for something more akin to an Elvis quiff. I don’t think it even dawned on me how unusual this was until one of my first boyfriends actually reached down, plucked one from my poor shocked lady garden like a violated turkey and asked if he could ‘please keep this as a souvenir’ (I kid you not). Yes, world, for all the things you wish you could un-know about me that you’ve read in these blogs, this will probably be in the top three. I have straight pubic hair! And I’m not the only one in my family. I won’t mention any names, because who am I to invade someone else’s privacy but there’s someone else in my family with the same Elvis-foo as I have (it’s my sister). We never knew where this strange genetic trait came from because our mother denied it was her and nobody else in our family spoke openly about pubic hair. They didn’t know what they were missing, obviously.
Why is this important? Well, because it’s much more common in parts of Asia to have straight pubes. And the most exotic my family gets is the rumour that we had the odd ancestor from Southern France or Northern Spain. Ask anyone in our family where we are descended from and they might mutter ‘Durham’ or ‘Newcastle’ or ‘Lowestoft’ or ‘Cornwall’ at the furthest stretches of recent family memory, but no one has ever told us of an Asian connection. And yet, my big sis has always had a certain oriental look to her face, and dead straight thick hair which has turned so dark brown as she’s got older it’s almost black. And my dad’s dad (who died before I was born) and his brothers all had this dead straight almost black hair. And I’ve always wondered. My sister and I always wondered. So I spat my spit into the tube and sent it off to Ireland hoping for answers. And waited….and waited.
It seems around Christmas, which is when my birthday unfortunately falls, every man and his dog decided to spit into a tube for answers too and ancestry.co.uk had a huge backlog. Many weeks past where I waited impatiently, checking and re-checking my spam folder for any communication from them to explain the Mystery Of The Pubes.
Then one day a few weeks ago, it arrived! I opened the email and clicked on the link to reveal the grand mysteries of my DNA. And there it was, after an enormous 60 something percent English and an unexpected 15% Irish (never heard of any Irish in our family), a highly interesting dollop of Russian and Scandinavian, a dash of Central European and Iberian….was my 1-3% South Asian!!! Someone, in the deep depths of my family history, did the sexy fandango with someone from South China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India or Sri Lanka. So it’s official. Both I AND my pubes know where we come from. Bloody marvellous.
But this was just the start of where it became interesting, because ancestry.co.uk started emailing me about possible DNA matches with other members. I created an account with them, with which to start my own family tree and there they were – with a grading of ‘excellent possibility of a match’ through to just ‘moderate possibility of a match’ of various cousins from around the world. At the moment they aren’t listed by their full names, just the usernames they’ve logged in with. But immediately it found my dad’s cousin Martin, who I haven’t seen since I was about 18, and had completely forgotten existed. And then more distant cousins, with whom I share a great great great grandmother and so forth, started popping up all over the world – each with their own branch of the family tree to share, and with it – photos! Stories! Oh the stories! Suddenly my tiny little world, with my tiny little family has been opened up to a tree whose branches spread so far, so wide, so deep. I’ve started going back and back, leaping from one generation to the next – using whatever records I can find, comparing with the trees of my newly found distant cousins, piecing together my family like the world’s most incredible (to me) jigsaw puzzle.
I now feel a race against time to complete the tree, to get everything down that my mother knows – my precious mother with her precious stories, her fantastic memory, and her knowledge of who is who even in our oldest family photographs…before she pops her mortal coil. Mother, if you’re reading this, it’s not that I think you’re ancient or on your last legs – I’m expecting you to go on at LEAST into your nineties like your own mother did (and so many of our ancestors before her, I’m now discovering) – but you are at the age where a bad cold starts to feel a bit ‘scary’, especially that one you had a few months ago where you started coffin shopping on your iPad from your sick bed. Stop it. You are never allowed to die. But just in case you fall and hit your head on a pebble and lose some of your fantastic memories, I have to get ALL those stories down. Because it’s the stories that are lost forever if there’s no one to remember them and pass them on. I have traced births, marriages and deaths, the bare facts of someone’s existence, the proof they existed and met someone of the opposite sex and mated, back through our family to the 1600s! I feel so lucky to live in a time where all this data is available at the push of a button for 16 quid a month subscription. But the wonderful stories – the pie-spitters, the infidelities with the bridesmaids, the spells in prison, the tragedies and triumphs of my forefathers and mothers…..these are like finding a tiny diamond in a hail storm. And every now and then I find one in the ancestry system, left there by a distant relative, who like me…has probably reached their 40s, panicked about their own mortality, or their parents’, or their lack of offspring, or whatever…and signed up to this same system of seek and find, and left the memories passed down THEIR branch of the family. Some of which marry up with stories I have been told, and some of which are completely new to me, new to everyone I know.
And as their personalities are revealed to me through these stories, through court documents, parish records, old newspapers even….they become so real to me, it’s like I actually feel *love* for these people that came before me, that survived wars, famines, snowstorms without central heating, flus without medicine, childbirth without intervention. And I feel so deeply connected to them that it becomes almost crazy to think all of that, ALL of that ‘stuff’ through time, through history, across the world, back and back and back…came forward and forward and forward until it got to me and my little (now six foot tall) boy. And I wonder if there was an after life, an after thought…if they look at me and are horrified that their descendant is the sort of young lady who writes about her pubes and poop on the internet without shame, who had a child out of wedlock, got married and then rapidly divorced, who makes sculptures of breasts and bottoms for a living, who lives in dungarees, and rarely does anything with her hair. Do they think I’m a horror? I’ve taken all their fabulous DNA and squandered it? Or do they look at modern women and marvel at us from their ethereal cloud – envy our freedoms, our birth control options, our education, our ability to hop on an aeroplane without having to ask permission from our fathers or husbands? Do they feel pride at the awards I win, for the phobias I’ve conquered, for the small triumphs over my natural propensity to burn food and drop things down my clean clothes? Do they sit and watch us like a reality tv soap? And if so, which of us still living form their ‘favourite channel’?
I only exist because they survived against the odds. When you look at the infant mortality rates even in the last few hundred years, and the deaths of mothers in childbirth or soon after – it’s crazy. Crazy even to think, looking at the oldest photo in my direct family line, of my great great grandmother Eliza Fossett – with her collar buttoned up to her chin, tight little sleeves in an almost funerial stuffy corseted black dress with four gazillion buttons, covering everything from wrist to ankle in layers of starchy fabric. The stick up her arse looks like it has a stick up its arse. And I think….I only exist because SHE got laid!!! In fact, my son, my sister, my nephews, my mum, my uncles, my lovely granny, the lovely great granny I never met….we ALL only exist because Starchy McButtons there got it on with great great grandpa no-face (oh for more photos!) Admittedly she has the kind of face that makes you think she would have only done the deed out of Christian wifely duty…but you never know. I’m from a line of women that spat in pies, that survived the Blitz, that marched on London for gay rights (ok that was me)….so maybe great great granny was also a bit of a goer, a little bit frisky, with hidden depths. Starchy and prim but with a hidden naughty smile and saucy side reserved only for that someone special…like Judy Dench.
Regardless, I am grateful to that woman in all her buttoned finery, for relaxing her bloomers and letting the DNA flow through her to the next generation. And to my great great grandpappy for his spermy offering and ability to hold down a decent job long enough to feed a family and keep them alive to grow and have kids of their own. And this is how it works. There are some schools of thought that says the DNA is actually the real ‘life form’ and we are just a sort of host body that the DNA uses like a parasite to procreate and spread, a bit like a virus does in our own systems. My body is just a meat carrier, that all the stuff that makes us anything – intelligent, creative, naughty (like me) – is in the DNA sailing through us, through time and space, time traveling in a way. My pubic hair DNA caught a ‘meat ship’ somewhere in Southern Asia hundreds of years ago and traveled across the world to end up in Maidstone on a rainy Sunday. It’s possibly wishing it could hitch a ride back in the opposite direction now and be repatriated to more exotic lands. Especially since I trim it down to oblivion and it never gets to rock its Elvis quiff any more, not even during a neglected winter. But for this short little life we each have, usually less than 100 years on Earth, the DNA is mine to carry, to pass on (been there, done that…hoping for grandchildren one day), to squander on anything from music lessons to Grecian holidays. I’m one of many little branches on the tree, like an adventurer carrying that package of DNA like a little parcel to pass on to the next generation or keep all to myself. And since I did have a child, and I have told him about the results of the DNA test, that maybe just maybe, hundreds of years from now, there will be the story passed down to my great great great great grandchildren of the rather strange distant granny who wondered so much about her heritage that she filled out the family tree as a gift to them, spending far too long on the Internet, filling in the blanks, so that they would know where their strangely perky pubes came from. And maybe they will remember me, or the idea of me, with love and a smile, as I do my great great grandparents…and maybe the same kind of gratitude I feel for being lucky enough, against all the odds, the zillion to one odds of existing at all because certain people got up the duff with a particular sperm on a particular night of the year…to simply exist. To be, is the greatest gift, whether you get to pass on the baton or not.