“Who are you? Who, who, who, who? ‘Cause I really wanna know – who are you? Who, who, who, who?”
-Lyrics by Peter Townshend, recorded by The Who (1978)
“Back where I come from, where I’ll be when it’s said and done. And I’m proud as anyone, that’s where I come from.”
-Lyrics by Mac McAnally, recorded by the artist in 1990. Covered and popularized by Kenny Chesney in 1996.
Culture, heritage, knowing where you come from, and who you are. These are subjects that fascinate most people, and I am no exception.
A few years ago for Christmas, my Mom gave me the Ancestry.com DNA kit. She had already done it, and had been conducting a lot of research on her family’s side (Howard) as well as my father’s (Ostrowski). I gladly spit in the little tube and mailed it back, with the anticipation of finding out if the oral narrative about my heritage matched with the hard science.
Insert Jeopardy Theme ….
I had grown up thinking on my mother’s side I was about 35% English and 15% Irish, and on my Dad’s I was 25% Polish and 25% Italian. I always liked that, and identified with my mutt background. I felt I could easily morph into different personalities, and I attributed that to my mixed heritage.
When Ancestry sent me the results, I discovered my DNA was even more jumbled.
But here’s the caveat … we tend to think of our heritage in terms of countries. But in doing so often forget that World History is super complex, and geographical lines have been drawn, erased, and redrawn countless times over thousands of years. Maps of even just 30 years ago (can anyone say Berlin Wall) are completely obsolete. New countries are born while others vanish.
Okay, enough of the history lesson … here were my DNA results:
My biggest takeaway from this … I’m European A.F.
It’s clear when you’re talking about your DNA, it’s tough to pinpoint your genome to a specific country. But you can look to regions of the world. When I analyze my results, they’re not wholly different than what I had thought (English, Irish, Polish, and Italian), but there’s a lot more going on. Having ancestors from Scandinavia was the biggest surprise (no relative had ever talked about a Nordic background), and then there was France, Spain, and lots of the former Soviet Union countries.
But of course DNA is only one piece of the puzzle. If you want to get more specific about your family’s background you need to search available records, whether they be birth, death, census, voting, immigration, or anything else recorded by the government. Sometimes these are available, but the further you go back in time the more difficult they become.
With my family, my Mom’s side has been in the United States for around two hundred years, and therefore she has yet to discover (and she’s tried really hard) specifically where in Great Britain & Ireland the family came from. Disappointing, as that would be great to know.
My Dad’s family has been easier to trace since the roots in America “only” go back to the early part of the 20th Century. I can say with certainty the Polish side comes from Sońsk & Grabowiec, where the Italian side (LaMonica) emigrated from Torrevecchia. Knowing this, I’d love to visit those places and reconnect with my roots.
(Both photos courtesy of my Great Uncle Daniel Ostrowski, who has done outstanding research on the family and has graciously shared it with us)
While all of this historical detective work is extremely cool and interesting, there’s another side that says, is any of this truly essential to my life? Does knowing where my family came from hundreds of years ago tell me something critical about who I am now, in 2018? Does it affect me as I go about my day? Those are tough questions to ask, and I’m certain we could all create arguments for either side.
After thinking this through as many angles as possible, I find myself in the camp that heritage does matter … however with the disclaimer, “up to a point”. This realization was actually surprising. When I started this blog post, I originally figured I would say that DNA searches and delving into your ancestry were entertaining and had some value, but essentially it was all just parlor games.
But that didn’t happen and it wasn’t my conclusion.
I love the quote by Carl Jung: “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
I think Jung is correct and that we all need to take responsibility for our present and future. We also shouldn’t let the past solely define us. If you have character flaws to improve, take them seriously and work on them. Throwing your hands up without making any effort to fix yourself because “you and your family have always acted that way”, is a lame excuse.
That being said, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice if we forget and ignore our past. I look no further than my own backyard as proof. In Hawaii, the culture has a deep respect for not only their living elders, but for all their ancestors who have passed generations long ago. And this manifests itself in an immensely strong sense of community, which is one of my favorite things about living here. People care about not only their own backyard, but for all the islands.
That doesn’t happen without knowing who your family was, and where you came from.
So I’ll end this post with circling back on the name change for the relaunch of my blog. It went from “Under Diamond Head”, which is very specific to Hawaii, to “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys”, which references an old Polish Proverb. I live in Hawaii and I’ve never been to Poland, but I’d like this blog to find a middle ground.
I intend to explore all the cultural and family influences from the towns my ancestors grew up in to the one I live in now. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll join me in the ride as I publish more blog posts.
Novelist and screenwriter with degrees from Boston University and Emerson College who lives in Hawaii. Aloha and mahalo in advance for reading my work! You can order a copy of my new novel here! https://www.inkshares.com/books/lost-in-the-fog