I shared on a previous post about taking an AncestryDNA test last summer.
Growing up I was told stories about supposed family history. Unable to verify any of it due to adoption on the maternal side and abandonment on the paternal end, I had no choice but to accept the accounts passed down to me from my mom. Over the years though, curiosity got the best of me so I set out to discover more about my ancestry.
Up until a few years back my mom, who was put up for adoption as an infant, didn’t know how to locate her biological family. Before I was born my biological father cut ties with my mom not only leaving an 18 year old single mother to fend for herself but also without means to get in contact with him or the family for information. It’s complicated, I know and proved to be quite the conundrum when trying to trace my origins. That is, until the popularity of DNA tests became a viable way of getting reliable answers. Another reason taking a genealogy test is important to me is so I can share with my two little girls where they came from. I want them to have an identity backed by irrefutable evidence showing the paths our ancestors took to get to where we are today.
Okay, so taking the DNA test is the easy part. The challenge now is going out on a limb to reach out to both sides of the family and try to make contact. I’ll be honest, even in my mid thirties the thought of introducing myself to total strangers in awkward circumstances about something so personal leaves me paralyzed with fear. Luckily my mom made contact with her biological family around 2013. Instantly she fell in love with them and encouraged me to meet them too. For years I bristled at the notion. On the outside I took a firm stance by rejecting the idea because deep down I was afraid I’d see a perfect family who would view me as “less than”, validating their reasons for cutting ties in the first place. Most people won’t be able to relate to this but for those who’ve been neglected or abandoned as a child know exactly where I’m coming from.
A Brief (and Humiliating) History
Rejection is a familiar feeling. Crippling, but familiar. When I was nine we lived on public assistance and the State deemed it necessary to collect child support from my biological father. Who was this man that, in the words of R. Kelly (too soon, I know) went “half on a baby” then bounced before witnessing his crazy little creation? My whole life I thought his name was Waldo because I was always looking for him. Black frame glasses, red and white striped shirt, right? Right. Okay, okay, okay; jokes aside, where it calls for the father’s name on my birth certificate it says “unknown”. That was a bit of a hassle trying to explain to the government when applying for my passport. Anyway, my mom finally relented and told the State who the lucky guy was and in true hipster fashion the three of us took DNA tests before they were famous. A few weeks later the results were in and in his best Maury voice, the doctor said “You….ARE the father!” Except, instead of tears of joy and promises to take me on trips to Disneyland (to make up for lost times of course), he opted to write my mom a letter. The short and sweet of it was that he already had a family of his own and since he didn’t want the baby in the first place, he especially didn’t want to pay for one. He’s writing this to a woman who is living on public assistance doing her best to raise their son on her own.
The year was 1992 and our only mode of transportation was a jalopy otherwise known as a 1986 Hyundai Excel that started falling apart the day my family bought it. To further illustrate, our car was like two steps above a Yugo but three steps below a Geo Metro. I know you don’t know what a Yugo is and I shouldn’t either but my grandma owned one and let me tell you, the fact that I’m alive today is a testament of the level of protection my guardian angel is capable of. We were renting a nearly dilapidated two bedroom house built at the end of the 19th century. Despite my mom’s best efforts the fact remained: she required – no – we required additional resources.
Waldo asked my mom if she would please refuse the State’s request to collect child support. Since we were in desperate need of any amount of money he could possibly provide, my mom made the obvious choice by honoring his request. I mean, he had his own family to look out for. I get it. That was the last form of communication we ever received from Waldo.
Don’t feel bad. I don’t. In this tragic comedy that I call life we laugh through our pain. If you don’t the devil wins and all that does is keep you distracted from improving your situation. Humans are resilient creatures built for adversity. With continued efforts comes the strength to overcome what may have seemed an insurmountable task and THAT is how you build character.
The intent of sharing my background is to illustrate just how complicated my situation is and the challenge I face trying to muster up the courage to reach out to a family I’m pretty certain wants nothing to do with me. The thing is though, I’m getting older and knowing my family history is becoming more and more important. I want my kids to know too and why should I let other peoples’ past mistakes, irresponsibilities or tough decisions get in the way of me knowing my family history?
Connecting with Kin
When I first took the AncestryDNA test last summer, I received a message from my mom’s aunt, Sidney. She had already met my mom in person and wanted to share photos and get to know Daya, Cassidy, Izzy and I more. We had some pleasant exchanges but I became overwhelmed and didn’t stay in touch. She ended up connecting with Daya on Facebook getting to know our little family through pictures. Recently however she sent me some digital images that looked like a scrapbook with all the family history (on the maternal side) that I could ask for. I can’t begin to describe how astonishing it was combing through the many pictures and accompanying stories from the different branches of the family. It felt as if I’d opened a treasure chest full of gold and for the first time in my three and a half decades on earth I finally began to feel like I had a true identity, and that I wasn’t just some abandoned orphan meandering through life with more questions than answers. I now have stories of family history I can pass down to my girls and they can pass down to their children.
In the image below you can see that I hail in large part from European descent. Although it does appear that I am at least 6% Native American or First Nation if you will. One point I mentioned in a previous post is I expected to have a higher percentage of First Nation ancestry (at the time it showed only 4%). I’ve always wondered what tribe my lineage traced back to. Surprise, surprise! Thanks to my great-aunt Sidney, I now have answers.
The Nisga’a Tribe
I might have to edit this part if I find later that I made errors but the way I understand it is in 1853 my great, great, great grandfather, Wii Ganaaw of the Nisga’a tribe was born in a village on the lower Naas River of British Columbia, Canada called Gwinoch. He was the son of a great chief in the tribe. The name Ganaaw means frog in the Nisga’a language. Tribe members are divided in four different pdeeks or large “families”, each having two major crests. The Nisga’a’s are matrilineal, meaning lineage is passed down by the mothers. Wii Ganaaw’s mother (my 4th great grandmother) was a member of the Gisk’aast pdeek which two crests are the Killer Whale and the Owl. Her crest was a Killer Whale which then made Wii Ganaaw a Killer Whale too.
During this time white settlers were living and doing business in the area. The church also set up a mission in 1867 where Wii Ganaaw and Looduminsgash were some of the first tribe members to get baptized and drop their Nisga’a names to take on English names. They were now known as Arthur Gurney and Lucy Wilson and in December of 1873 they were pronounced husband and wife.
The following year they welcomed a baby daughter to the world and named her Louisa Gurney. In an arranged marriage by the tribe (presumably by the mother’s side) 15 year old Louisa was chosen to marry 25 year old George Quokshow in August of 1887. Disaster struck and George was stricken with typhoid fever in November of 1890 which took his life. At just 17 years old Louisa became a widow. Just a few months later she would end up losing her father in February of 1891 for the same reason.
How Louisa eventually came to be my 2nd great grandmother was through her marriage to my 2nd great grandfather, Sidney in 1902. Together they had six children. Sadly, at the age of 42 she was stricken with TB and died at the hospital.
The Future Beckons
This is just one exciting branch of my family tree. There are many more that take you to England, Switzerland, France, Germany and Ireland. This is precisely what I was looking for when I first took my journey to discover my roots. As my ancestors travelled the world and found love on their incredible journeys, it feels as though I continued the legacy by marrying outside of my American culture. My beautiful asawa (wife in Tagalog- the official language of the Philippines) now adds a Filipino layer to the gene pool. I’m so grateful for my great aunt Sidney for reaching out and sharing some truly wonderful stories.
I can picture myself as a grandpa telling Cassidy and Izzy’s kiddos all these great stories. Then they’ll ask grandma and I about our journey. We’ll just look at each other and smile, asking, “Have you ever heard of a television show called ’90 Day Fiancé’?”, while we all break out in laughter. [Start to zoom out slowly and fade the audio.]
Perhaps when it comes to the paternal side of my family I just need to take a risk and reach out to one of my matches on AncestryDNA. Maybe I have it all wrong and there are people who would be willing to meet me to share family history. Maybe there’s even a great aunt Sidney waiting on that side of the family to share exciting stories of travel and adventure by our past generations. For now though I’m relishing in the mystique and wonder of uncovering more family history with the real great aunt Sidney.