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By Mari Dias
How many of you have taken the Ancestry or 23andme DNA
test? Initially most folks considered this technology with a suspicious eye:
today it seems to be de rigueur. However, many people are not expecting or
equipped to hear the results.
Stories abound of legacies erased in the time it takes
to read the report. This was the case for my client, Nora. Nora is a fifty
something year old woman, an only child of Italian immigrants. She grew up in
an Italian neighborhood in Chicago where her parents instilled in her the
cultural traditions and values of their culture. She learned to make her pasta by
hand, and a traditional Italian “gravy” (not sauce!) and celebrated La Vigilia
di Natale (Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve).
Last Vigilia, Nora received an Ancestry DNA kit. On a
lark, she sent her DNA back in the test tube provided and forgot about it. Six
weeks later she was surprised and delighted to receive her DNA report. Once she
read the report her surprise and delight morphed into confusion.
“Well, this has to be wrong” she thought. The results revealed that Nora was 50%
Jewish. How was this possible? Nora had recently applied for Italian dual
citizenship and she had culled a great deal of historical information on both
her parents. She chalked it up to an error – until she spoke to some friends
who encouraged her to pursue the mystery. Nora’s parents could not shed any
light as they had passed, but she did have a cousin on her father’s side. She
bought him an Ancestry Kit, only to find his results indicated 100% Italian.
Hmm… “Did her mother have an affair?”
Nora remembered that her mother often spoke about her
boss at a shoe factory where she worked as a newly married woman, a gentle man
who allowed her to work her own hours. Nora also had a vague memory of her
maternal aunt suggesting that her mom had a crush on this man. He was much
older than Nora’s mom. Nora took on the role of sleuth.
She researched the shoe factory, found out the
gentleman’s name and contacted his family. Sure enough, the father who raised
her was not her biological father, but a wealthy Jewish man who owned a factory
in Chicago and had died months after her birth. She was shocked. “Did her
father know? Did her biological father know? How did her mother hold onto this
secret for over 50 years? Or, did she?”
Nora searched for clues in her mother’s belongings but
found nothing – except a cancer sore on her tongue. She found out her father
was not her biological father, and that she was 50% Jewish, a few weeks before
she discovered she had tongue cancer. She joked: “My mother is so angry with me
for disclosing her secret to everyone that she sent the tongue cancer as a
curse to stop me from talking!” (Italians can understand the humor of that
statement – “I’ll cut your tongue out if you say that one more time!” or I’ll
wash your mouth out with soap” are both common reprimands for swearing or
talking back to an Italian mother!)
Since Nora shared this story, I’ve heard dozens of
similar ones. Hundreds of people are discovering that the people they consider
parents, siblings or children, are not.
And there’s the rub. What does one do when they
experience the initial shock? Fortunately for Nora, she eventually embraced her
Jewish identity while maintaining her Italian heritage. Others may not be so
resilient, and struggle with their cultural identity.
We usually do not associate non-finite loss with
Ancestry or 23andMe DNA tests. Given the popularity of these tests perhaps we
should. It is fascinating to search our family tree, to follow our lineage back
to its beginnings and learn about generations of people who share our DNA.
Perhaps the kit should come with a black box warning label: “Caution: These
results are accurate. Be prepared for the truth”.
Postscript: Following several surgeries and cancer treatments, Nora is cancer-free. The majority of her tongue is intact, and she still tells her story to both her Jewish and Italian friends and family.
(Photo, above: Spectrum Health Beat)
Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief.
She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program,
Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief
Center, in North Kingstown, RI. For more information, go to: http://gracepointegrief.com/