I grew up knowing I had Italian heritage. My mother, my grandparents and my Uncle Jim would tell stories about their family and our ancestors from Italy. They shared stories about how our family came to this country. My maternal grandmother was an only child born in Rome, Italy. Anna and her parents, Carolina and Marco Milani immigrated to the US in 1912 when she was 14 years old. My grandmother enrolled in high school but didn’t speak English very well. She struggled to adjust and her education in her new country wouldn’t last long. At age 16 Anna quit school and went to work in a shirt factory in Glens Falls.
My grandfather, Vincenzo DeSantis, also emigrated from Italy. He was the youngest child of Ponfila and Giovina DeSanctis. His mother died when he was very young. At age 18 his father also died leaving him an orphan. My grandfather was a talented woodworker. I remember a story my mother shared with me that my grandfather built his father’s casket himself. Since his sisters, Nicoletta, Assunta and Anna had already immigrated to the US, Vincenzo was alone in his hometown of Popoli, Italy. The task of burying their father was left to him. With his family gone, Vincenzo decided to follow his sisters to upstate New York in 1914. The Italian culture, customs and traditions of both my grandparents traveled with them to this country and they are still part of our family today.
Jason, my husband, grew up knowing he had Canadian and French Canadian ancestry. Both of his maternal grandparents had immigrated to the US from Canada. His grandmother Dorothy Clark was born is Saskatchewan and Guy Tetu emigrated from Quebec. Jason remembers hearing about how Guy ran away when he was a young man because his parents had decided that he should become a priest. Fortunately, Guy had other plans. Like many immigrants, including my own grandparents, he chose to immigrate to America in search of a better life. Guy moved to the Syracuse area. He became a millwright and started a family with Dorothy. He was also talented carpenter and built his two story house with his own two hands.
I see a part of Guy and Dorothy every day in my son’s eyes. My son Max has gray eyes. The color is so unusual you don’t hear of it very often. The answer of where the gray color came from was shared with my husband and I from his Uncle Gary. “Both of my parents had the most striking gray eyes,” Uncle Gary said. Gray eyes are a genetic defect of blue eyes that are passed down from one generation to the next. My eyes are dark brown and my husband’s eyes are hazel like his mother’s. To look at us you wouldn’t know what other eye colors are within each of our DNA, or that one of us carried a genetic defect for eye color. This discovery made me curious about other aspects of my DNA and my husband’s that you couldn’t see.
Both Jason and I were raised by single mothers. My parents were divorced and my father always lived far away so I didn’t see him very often. Jason never even knew his father. His mother didn’t like talking about the subject. She would simply say that his father was a man she felt Jason didn’t need to know and was better off not knowing. After Jason was born, Bette made the decision to live with her father Guy Tetu. Guy would take on the role of father and grandfather. He helped to raise his grandson until his sudden and tragic death when Jason was just ten years old.
As the years and decades passed, Jason became more and more curious about the paternal side of his family. Who was his father? What did his father look like? Why was his mother being so secretive? Was there more to the story? His curiosity would get sidetracked by other more important events in his life like college, the Army, his career and ultimately a family of his own. His search would become even more complicated when his mother became was diagnosed with breast cancer.
And then Last December, about twenty years after Bette’s passing, I kept noticing ads from Ancestry.com. A tv commercial showed this man who thought he his ancestors were German and wearing lederhosen. However, after taking the AncestryDNA test he discovered his family was actually Scottish. The commercial ends with the man wearing a kilt. I was intrigued. As I scrolled through Facebook, I noticed a print ad selling Ancestry DNA kits. Even better, the DNA kits were on sale, especially if you bought two. I decided I would by two, one for Jason and one for myself.
As 2018 was just beginning, new changes to our family were beginning as well. Jason and I sent our saliva to Ancestry to be tested. The directions tell you to expect 6-8weeks before you will receive your DNA report by email. It seemed like it took forever for the results to come back but really it was only about three weeks. Finally at the end of January, Jason received an email that said, “Your DNA results are in.” I wasn’t with Jason when he opened the email but he called me soon after. “You’ll never believe what my results are,” he said when he called that night. Even though I had high hopes that the DNA results would tell Jason something about his paternal ancestry, I was shocked what the tests yielded.
“I know who my birth father is,” Jason shared over the phone. “What?” I replied. I couldn’t believe it. After two decades of on and off searching, the answer showed up in an email. It would reveal what he was unable to discover on his own. At the top of his DNA matches, it listed a man who was a close family match to Jason. It said that he and his biological father shared enough DNA to be a parent/child match. The results also listed various cousin and aunt matches. For the first time, Jason could read the names of people who were on the paternal side of his family. It was satisfying to finally know, now what?
Through the Ancestry.com website, you can send messages to the various people it says you share DNA with and are related to. Jason composed a short message to a woman he believed to be his paternal aunt. He told her that he could see they shared DNA and they must be related some how. He wondered if she might have any information about this side of his family. Sadly, this woman never responded to his message. However, about three weeks later I received a phone call at our house from another sister of Jason’s biological father. This aunt had noticed Jason’s DNA results in Ancestry.com and wanted to reach out to him. This phone call would end up giving Jason way more information than just what part of Ireland his paternal ancestors hailed from, it let him know he had a half-brother.
One day you think you know everything there is to know about who you are and who is in your family and then with one click of a button it can all change. Affordable DNA testing is making it possible for people to search for their ancestry like never before. For many, it can finally answers questions they have searched for for decades. It can also unearth long kept personal and family secrets. It is important to be aware that what the DNA might reveal. You can be find new found family members and everyone is happy. You can also find family members or relatives who reject you and the search ends in disappointment.
As far at his biological father, the one Jason had been curious about and wondering who he was? They haven’t spoken. Fortunately, Jason’s half-brother has been able to provide information explaining their shared biological father. He is a complicated man who probably doesn’t want to look back or revisit his life back then. It’s still new and things could change.
You need to have patience when connecting with new found family through DNA. It is not easy and both parties might have very different expectations. Usually, when a person puts their DNA in a database you would assume they would be ok with being found, that isn’t always the case. That doesn’t mean you can’t reach out and search for relatives. There are many people out there just waiting to be found, you just might be one of them.
Artist at Stonehenge
(Ancient burial and World Heritage Site, Summer of 2018)