Learning about ancestors online

I don’t really know anyone on my father’s side of the family. He didn’t talk much, and when he did, it was never about his family.

What I knew was limited to weird bits about step-brothers, an alcoholic mother and years spent bouncing around through Illinois’ foster care system. It sounded bleak, so I never really pressed the issue for fear of drumming up some unnecessary pain.

As kids, my siblings and I met his cousin once as she was passing through our town. Or was it an aunt? I really can’t remember. I was 10 years old and the moment so fleeting and so long ago that the memory is now hazy.

Thanks to Facebook, I’ve connected with another family member – Ruby, my father’s cousin. She is a wealth of information about his past, supplying me with great pictures of his parents and other relatives, many of whom died before I was even born. My grandfather looks very tall in the pictures, which helps to explain my hulking 6-foot-8-inch frame.

But that’s it. A random visit from someone I can’t remember and a Facebook friend who sends the occasional picture serve as my only connections to his past.

He died a few years ago, right around the time consumer-based DNA testing was becoming readily available in the United States.

23andMe and a smattering of other DNA ancestry services are now part of our everyday lexicon, luring us with the promise of a deeper sense of genetic heritage in exchange for a little saliva, $150 and the ability to store our DNA profile on some random computer in California.

As a researcher and writer, the offer to have more data was enticing. But if I’m being honest, it really came from a longing to learn more of the truth behind what little I already knew of my dad’s story.

Unfortunately, what I found told me very little about his life.

What it did tell me was that my life was bigger than the DNA contributions of one person, painting a bigger picture of a vast lineage, a family journey from places such as England, Ireland, Germany and Switzerland.

Buying into the DNA hype comes with risks. I get it. For me, it seemed like the secondary reward was knowing more about my genetic health, wellness traits and other reports these services provide.

What I didn’t expect was a connection to a possible paternal relative. “Open Sharing,” or connecting with DNA relatives who use the service, connected me to a third or fourth cousin (we share a great-great grandfather on my father’s side). She reached out, asking questions to see if we shared other connections.

I didn’t learn more about my father from the DNA sample, but maybe I’ve made a connection to his past and my family that wasn’t there just a few short years ago.

Adam Earnheardt is chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and on his blog at www.adamearn.com.

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