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March 31, 2017


Fantastic and very thought-provoking post. Will definitely get back to this when I have had time to think how much to reveal online. Does anybody else worry about this, and if so, how do you deal with it?

It's rather an amusing question these days.

We always thought we were a mix of Swedish, English, German, and French. Except that nobody could find any record of our (obviously French) last name anywhere in France -- and a couple of my siblings spent some time and effort looking. (They did find a single, solitary gravestone. In Belgium.)

Then, a couple of years back, my family gave me one of those ancestry DNA tests for a birthday present. First surprise: France barely shows up at all. Second surprise: 1/8 (Poland based) Ashkenazi. No idea where that comes from, beyond that it's on my father's side somewhere.

And that's before we get to my in-laws. Early on, my now wife took me off to show grandma this blue-eyed blond she had brought home. I did the polite thing, bowed, and said "Hajimemashite" (took a couple of college courses; Anthro major). Grandma just lit up (my wife, being sansei, speaks no Japanese at all), but my future mother-in-law was utterly croggled for the whole rest of the day.

So who are "my people"? Mostly, I just wave vaguely at north-western Europe if asked. I actually put far more store on the folks I work with professionally as being "my people." Beyond immediate family, genetics is mostly just a matter of mild intellectual interest.

OMG, I don't even know where to start. I'm so not anything, yet so many things, at the same time.

I had a similar conversation to the one you had in Ireland, JanieM, only mine was with English guys in a bar in Chicago. I don't remember how nationality/ethnicity came up. (It could have been because someone asked about mine, which people used to do a lot when I was younger. "What are you?" "I'm a free-thinking fascist-anarchist. Is that what you meant?")

At any rate, I was lectured about how Americans talk about being this or that, even though they're really just American, whereas English people don't do that sort of thing. The example one of the Brits gave me was that his grandmother was Scottish, but that he didn't go around telling people he was 1/4 Scottish.

Okay. Well, my grandmother was born in Ohio, but I don't go around telling people I'm 1/4 Ohioan. (Whereas her parents came over from Italy, so I might say I'm 1/4 Italian. In fact, I do sometimes say that.)

But I digress!

When I lived in Arizona, I was from New Jersey. When I moved back to New Jersey, I was from Arizona. And from the age of 7 through college, I didn't live in either place full time. I went back and forth according to whether or not I was in school. From some point in 2nd grade through the end of 8th grade, I went to school in Arizona. From 9th grade on, I went to school in New Jersey.

In high school, I lived in one town, but used my aunt's address to go to school in another town. When at college and being asked where I was from (i.e. where did you live and/or go to high school?), I would have to decide how to answer, depending on the context.

I couldn't give anyone a straight answer about where I grew up or what town I was "from." That's within the context of having gone to high school in a demographically stable 17th century town where many of the kids had nth-great grandparents with streets named after them.

And when traveling farther from home, it's hard to know if it's simpler to tell people I'm from New Jersey or Philadelphia. From their point of view, which answer will most readily give them the information that is relevant to the question? I live 15 minutes (without traffic) from Center City Philly, well within the boundaries of the cultural and economic influence of the city, yet not only outside the city proper, but in another state. But that's a problem for a lot of people in New Jersey, not me in particular.

Then there's my bipolar social life, wherein I have two social circles of friends I've known since high school, but there is virtually no connection between them (aside from me, I guess). One group is more suburban and sports oriented, and the other is more urban and arts oriented. I watch the Super Bowl with one and go to dive bars to see punk bands with the other.

So you may have read somewhere that some percentage of self-identified white Americans have some amount of sub-Saharan African ancestry (as in, say, at least 1% according to DNA testing). I discovered (or maybe verified my suspicion) that I had some. Mine turned out to be 10%, which is kind of a lot for a self-identified white person. The really unusual part is that it's coming from BOTH of my self-identified white parents.

My mysterious "Spanish" great grandfather on my father's side turned out to be Puerto Rican, and my father also tested 10% sub-Saharan African.

My mother hasn't tested her DNA, but my half-sister on my mother's side did, and she, very neatly from a mathematical standpoint, tested at 5% sub-Saharan African. I'm 99% certain that it's from my mother's father's mother, who was another somewhat mysterious person, having been adopted under unknown circumstances and raised as a white person. She managed to "pass" most of the time, but not always, according to some of the records I've been able to find. (FREX, in the 1910 census, the code entered for race was "Mu" for mulatto.)

When I was a kid, I would spend a lot of time outside in the sun, and I would get very dark. Sometimes people would "mistake" me for a black person, which wasn't a good thing to be according to a lot of the people I spent my time around (including some of the people who unknowingly shared my African ancestry), so it bugged me. Even within my own family, you could say I won the lottery of dark-complexion genes. I'm the noticeably darker one in every picture. (My two grandfathers were probably as dark as I am, but one died when I was very young and the other didn't spend a lot of time outside.)

And, if you think that's something, I recently found out I that, by way of another adopted great grandmother, I'm 1/16th Alsatian. That one really threw me for a loop. Is that French or German? Gee whiz... Now what am I supposed to do?

i have one of those DNA test kits sitting, unopened, on the counter in our kitchen. i assume it's going to tell me i'm 1/2 procrastinator.

my mom's mother was Slavic, by way of Bridgeport, CT. family history says that one of Igor Sikorsky's sons had a thing for my grandmother, back in the day. i thank her for the olive tones in my skin and for my love of sauerkraut (because she used to make it for me).

my father's mother is a Borden. that means i'm related to Lizzie Borden, to the man who founded Borden's Milk, and to some guy named Winston Churchill.

my very uncommon last name is due to a man who left the Alsace region and came to the US in the mid 1800. he settled in north central PA and some of his sons moved west. but it's a very safe bet that if you know anyone in the US with my last name that he or she is related to me.

last year, i did an internet search on my last name and found a picture of a young man in Switzerland who looks exactly like i did when i was 25. we've been genetically separated since at least 1840, and yet, the look persists.

i was born in south-central NY, lived in PA, NH, ME and back to NY before i was five. went to three different schools in three different NY cities for 4th grade. finally settled down after that. moved to NC 20 years ago. have been here long enough to know that the stereotypes northerners have about southerners are bullshit. my uncles from NY are the biggest rednecks i know.

my uncles from NY are the biggest rednecks i know.

Which reminds me! That general store in the post looks just like one I stopped at for directions in West Virginia when visiting my brother-in-law. If my knowledge of geography is as good as I think it is, I'm pretty sure Maine isn't in the South or Appalachia. (Yeah, yeah - the range goes up there, but not the region.)

it's a very safe bet that if you know anyone in the US with my last name that he or she is related to me.

I have that, too. If they have my last name, anywhere in the US (maybe the world?), either they are descended from my grandfather or from his brother. (Or married in personally, of course.)

I sort of have that, but not with my last name. My grandmother's maiden name, which everyone thought was French, but that is actually Belgian, is very uncommon. Anyone from around here with that last name is a cousin, descended from my great-great grandparents. I recently found out that a friend's older brother is married to my 3rd cousin via those great-great grandparents, though she didn't have that last name.

It's not all that noteworthy as far as the probability of someone I know marrying my 3rd cousin, but it's funny that I found out. I was looking at obituaries for my grandmother's first cousins to put dates on a family tree and kept seeing the same great niece and granddaughter on their obits. Her name changed between a couple of them from my friend's wife's maiden name and her married name, so I thought it was her. The more I looked into it, I realized it was a different person with the same name(s). As it turns out, his older brother married someone with exactly the same name, including middle initial, and that she was, in fact, my cousin.

I'm going to assume that my Belgian and Alsatian ancestry means I'm related to both cleek and wj.

"Do you know who your people are?"

Yes. Don't mess with them, if you know what's good for you.

They were on the ground in America, long before Plymouth colony, or even Jamestown. But right bastards, also too.

I'm going to assume that my Belgian and Alsatian ancestry means I'm related to both cleek and wj.

no matter what your creation story, we're all related somehow.

except for pod people like Pence.

What I think is interesting is that we're really just getting started with DNA testing, and the availability of records on line is still increasing. I've already found out so many things, through a combination of DNA results and researching records on line, that I very likely wouldn't have been able to find out with just one or the other (and certainly not without either).

The Alsatian thing wasn't a joke. I somehow stumbled upon the fact that two of my father's higher-certainty DNA matches (only one of whom was also a DNA match for me) had two of the same great-great grandparents on the family trees associated with their DNA-test profiles. I started looking into the family, and they had come over from Alsace to Philadelphia, later moving to the same town in New Jersey where my paternal grandmother's family was from.

I was pretty sure those great-great grandparents were my great grandmother's biological grandparents, given their ages, and that one of their children was my great grandmother's biological mother or father. (My great grandmother was adopted.)

I came across the 1905 New Jersey census and found that the great-great grandmother of my father's DNA matches and one of her sons were living in the home of my great grandmother's adoptive parents at that time. I don't know where my great grandmother was then, because she wasn't listed, but that seemed awfully coincidental.

As luck would have it, a guy with a genealogy blog had done extensive research into the family from Alsace because his partner was a great-great grandson of the same couple who showed up in the DNA matches' family trees. (We're facebook friends now.) It also turned out that the partner had done the Family Tree DNA test. I downloaded my father's raw DNA file and uploaded it to Family Tree DNA. Sure enough, the guy comes up as a 2nd to 4th cousin.

All this by virtue of an internet connection and sending some spit through the mail. I didn't have to go anywhere.

you've convinced me to put a reminder on my phone to get that dna test thing done this weekend!

In Massachusetts (where people of Italian descent are pretty common) an "Italian" is a specific type of sub/grinder, with provolone and a lot of different varieties of cold cuts piled on. This usage seems pretty common nationwide.

Capicola (pronounced GAH-bah-ghoul) better be on one of them Italians there, pally.

Do you know who your people are?

The applied mathematicians.

Ah, Michael Cain, a man after my own heart!

My people by birth/ancestry: Ashkenazi jewish mainly from Lithuania as are most jews from South Africa, (but one grandparent from Norway). My parents were 2nd gen South African, but despite being very comfortably off left in the late 50s with very little because of apartheid (my mother in particular had been very active in the anti-apartheid movement, and the time had come, as my father said, to either fight or get out). We left when I was three and a half, and despite having a large extended family (most of whom I had never met) I never went back to visit until I was in my fifties. As I entered the country in Cape Town, the black airport official at Immigration looked in my passport at “place of birth”, and said “Welcome home”.

My people by place of childhood: I was brought up in Hong Kong, where my parents had moved and were again very well off, and in some ways it was an idyllic upbringing (boats, swimming pools, parties etc). However, unlike many wealthy expats, my parents were very active in what you might call social justice matters, and my father in particular was, despite his very successful, somewhat more conventional professional life, a well-known champion of the poor and in particular a terribly effective warrior against police corruption. After I was sent to boarding school in the UK at 11, and when I stopped going home to HK at around 17, I settled reasonably comfortably (I thought) into upper-middle class English life and stayed in London for the rest of my adulthood. I almost forgot about Hong Kong, and it assumed a patina of luxury and exoticism in my mind. I didn’t go back until I was in my thirties, long after my parents had left, and was shocked on my drive in from the airport to realise that the weeds on the roadside were familiar weeds, and the sights and smells were completely familiar and comfortable. While I was there, an old friend of mine had just achieved a particular professional honour, in the same profession as my father’s, and he invited me to an extremely snazzy celebration party at one of Hong Kong’s very upmarket hotels. When I arrived, almost all the other guests were Chinese, and also in the same profession. My friend took me round and introduced me, saying “This is GftNC, you may remember her father, who was known as the XXX (Cantonese nickname given to my father, who had learnt Cantonese and was a very rare professional friend of the poor).” The weird thing was, in a room of strangers, I unexpectedly felt more at home than I had in England in all those years.

My people by what? Religion: no. I am a militant atheist, as has become abundantly clear in my posts at ObWi. By culture: not in most ways, but the jews of Lithuania were apparently called “the Opponents” by other European jews, and it will possibly amaze my fellow ObsidianWingers to know that I am famously argumentative, as indeed are the rest of my family (but my late father was not).

In short, I have no idea who my people are. But I feel at home in certain groups, and one of those groups is Obsidian Wings.

1/2 German/Scottish/English/Amish who knows name like Morgan or Villums came over honest-to-Gawd with William Penn; 1/2 Scots(?)- Irish from County Roscommon way up North came down through Canada in 1820s before the famine; speck like 1/32 Native American. Religion: raised Catholic/Methodist/Baptist now bored to death with metaphysics atheist (but I don't even know what "atheist" means and don't care. I claim it's literal nonsense.) Materialist? Schopenhauer and Buddhism makes a little sense. Will and representation; dhamma and desire.

Politics: Blow it up, burn it down, take their stuff. Eat the rich, all and any rich.
Beyonce and Clooney as much as Koch. Celibacy, poverty, solitude and silence for everybody.

Sensibility:Radical misanthrope. Hikikomori by preference. People who don't need people are the luckiest people. I prefer dogs and trees. Flowers. Kids are ok.

I have little doubt about my ethnic origins, though I guess there is always a possibility of being surprised.

Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant (at age 3) with ancestors in Poland and Russia, and lands that sometimes were one, sometimes the other. Grew up speaking Yiddish at home a fair amount of the time, which causes me to be bewildered by people who think there is something wrong with not having English as one's primary language.

(Joke: Boy comes running home.

"Grandma, have you heard? We're not in Russia any more. This is Poland now."

"Good," says Grandma, "I couldn't have stood another one of those Russian winters." )

I can confirm Gftnc's comment that Jews from Lithuania were regarded, as "different," though I never heard the term "Opponents." They were sometimes ridiculed, though for what was never clear, and spoke Yiddish with a "funny" (i.e., not Polish) accent.

Who are my people? Lots of people. Family. Shared ethnicity, beyond doubt. Also bridge players, photographers, a few random friends, a fair number of southerners, at least one right-wing crazy,....

byomtov, I believe the Yiddish word opponents comes from is something like "mitnagdim" (on accursed phone so cannot check), and that it originates from the period when hasidism (an ecstatic, anti-intellectual movement) arose in Poland. I was told that the Lithuanian Jews of the time subscribed to a much more intellectual, rigorous approach, and that their disputatiousness on this matter (and probably on others) led to their being labelled in that way.

There's a ton of stuff I want to respond to, but I won't get time to even attempt to do it justice until tomorrow. In the meantime, thanks for the wonderful responses.

Right now I just want to highlight this from GftNC:

As I entered the country in Cape Town, the black airport official at Immigration looked in my passport at “place of birth”, and said “Welcome home”.

This made me cry. Immediately, and again now, and several times in between.

Still pending from my first post, the one on cemeteries, is the topic of home. wj said in that thread that he had very clear ideas about "home," while I (as usual) have rambling and fuzzy ideas about it. So I've been meaning to get back to it, but here it is again, showing up on its own.

I didn't think of ancestry in response to that question (Who are your people?)

I thought: introverts.

Actually I interpreted "my people" as meaning "People I am comfortable with", so my first response was "introverts."

Then I realized that actually I am pretty comfortable with anyone who does not have to talk all the time and can tolerate my silence, introverted or not.

I am even more comfortable with people who either don't talk at all or get into long analytical discussions. I can't do small talk worth shit.

As far as ancestry, I'm another Alsatian, of the French variety, with some English thrown in the mix.


My understanding of "mitnagdim" is that they were opponents of hasidism, and, as you say, advocates of a more rigorous and intellectual approach to Judaism, or perhaps simply those who did not like the more emotional hasidic movement.

Whether that was the predominant view in Lithuania I don't know. All I know is the linguistic criticisms.

The whole hasidic movement is a fascinating chapter in religious history, about which I know less than I should.

There's an interesting bit in one of the Hyman Kaplan stories (about a group of recent immigrants learning about their new country and preparing for citizenship) in which the title character is startled to learn that a new member of the class is, "Mein Gott! A Litvak!"

(I read it many years ago, and didn't realize the subtext.)

I didn't think of ancestry in response to that question (Who are your people?)

I am reminded of a joke (again).

Guy calls up his girlfriend one morning and says,

"Gee, it turns out I can't meet you for lunch today like we planned. It's a high holy day for my people."

"High holy day? What are you talking about? You're not religious."

"Apple is making new product announcements."

turns out, wonkie is my people.


I think maybe animals are my people.

All in my opinion: To the extent that ancestry is important, it's important whether you know the details or not. Knowing the details of your ancestry may help to explain a few things here or there, but I really don't buy into the marketing of DNA- or records-based genealogy as something that "tells you who you are." I find it very engrossing, but in a frivolous way. It engages the mind, like solving a crossword puzzle, but doesn't really accomplish anything (at least not anything beyond engaging the mind, if you consider that accomplishing something).

I also thoroughly enjoy the statistical nature of the inheritance of DNA and the probabilities that you'll share are given amount of identical-by-descent DNA with someone of a given familial relationship.

What I'm a bit surprised by is how well it seems your ethnicity (or at least the geographical areas your ancestors lived in a few thousand years ago) can be predicted by analyzing your DNA sequences. It's by no means an exact science, but it seems to work reasonably well, even for someone as admixed as I am. It's something I would be inclined by nature to be highly skeptical of, like I would be of reading entrails or tea leaves.

But once you get past your more immediate ancestry, which most people are likely to know without researching it, the rest is more or less entertainment.

My "people" in the cultural-ancestral sense are primarily British and the British diaspora - Canada and USA, but I also felt pretty much at home in Australia. My mother's mother's side is the only branch to have had genealogical study done (of what quality, I know not) and it supposedly goes back through one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence - John Witherspoon, if you must know - to Robert II, King of Scotland. My father's family came from Wales to Canada by way of Birkenhead (suburb of Liverpool), but by the time it reached my father's generation was firmly British of the late Imperial variety: Boy's Own Paper, Kipling, Dickens, John Buchan, etc.

There's also some German blood, through my mother's father's branch, but that is in socio-cultural terms entirely notional; I've never noticed anything remotely "Germanic" in the heritage that reached me.

It was only after my father's death that I wound up in Hong Kong (Hi, GfTNC!) and met a colleague who said, on hearing my last name: "That sounds Welsh! Do you drink? Do you sing?" (In that order, I'm pretty sure.) When I allowed as how I did both, he said "Right, boyo, you're coming down with me to the Choir next Tuesday," and I did, and for the next 18 years was a stalwart of the Hong Kong Welsh Male Voice Choir. There I began to discover my Welsh heritage, which (I realized) my father's family had done their best to rise above or ignore. (Except for Welsh hymn tunes, which are the best.) The brief forays I've made into ancestral research disappear in a couple of generations into a welter of Jones, Owen, Reese (Rhys?) and other probable shepherds or slate miners, who knows?

But this is all incidental to actual personal identification. Such ethnic groupings are "granfalloons," as Kurt Vonnegut eloquently labeled them. (A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle), is defined as a "false karass". That is, it is a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is meaningless.)

MY people are my family, somewhat extended, but not terribly far (not even all first cousins are included, really). They range in religion from clerics to atheists, and in politics from liberals to Trump-ites (so we avoid these topics). Pretty much all of them are intelligent and talkative; we are over-represented in the ranks of clergy and teachers, under-represented among those who manipulate objects rather than words.

Beyond that my people are fellow Southeast Asianists and/or historians. They are fellow singers, whether in the HKWMVC or (nowadays) Duke Chapel Choir. They are those I find "simpatico" intellectually or politically, whether on ObWi or elsewhere. They tend to be English-speaking, just because I am for most purposes a monoglot, so I can't develop close relationships in any other language.

I'm a sports fan, and have therefore always defined myself in trivial ways by the teams I follow, but I've moved around the world (and the USA) so much that all original loyalties have been overlaid, if not actually displaced, by later versions. I have at various times supported the USA, England, Wales, Australia, and Hong Kong in international competitions, and "follow" no fewer than five MLB teams with varying degrees of devotion (most, by now, rather attenuated), as well as at least three collegiate sports families.

In short, I'm either an Anglophone cosmopolite or a rootless mongrel, depending on what kind of spin one chooses to put on the matter.

I don't worry much about it.

Studying my origins, I was surprised how much I hadn't known, stories of domestic travails and abandonments that were hidden, and that may not have been narrated fairly through the years.

I also took a DNA test that laid rest to my theory about a mysterious ancestor that I had thought might have been a former slave. Turns out I'm European, Western on Dad's side and Eastern on Mom's.

The most interesting thing about learning the names and whereabouts of ancestors is that it lends context to history, in that what they were doing is what a lot of other people were doing at the same time. And the dead we discover when we look back ... the children, the war dead, the disease casualties ... I am here versus so many who might have been.

Despite having many loving friends and family members, there are times when I'm sure we all feel absolutely alone.

Is the comment box big enough?

Dad's parents, Okinawa to Hawai'i, grandmother a picture bride and i believe a second cousin, cause she had the same last name.

Dad, 7th or 8th (depends on how you count the ones who died early) with a severe case of island fever, was the first to go to university on the mainland.

Mom, daughter of a thrice widowed Englishman and a once widowed Englishwoman (whose first husband was an American in India) who immigrated to the US with my grandparents. Her step brother was a veteran whose medical history prevented him and his family from immigrating with them.

Me, raised in Maryland, but moving to Southern Mississippi for JHS, so was never really home there.

Stints in Europe and now married to a Japanese, living in Japan, with two daughters, one just off to college. I'm not home here either.

Hugely fortunate that both sides of the family liked to stay in touch and always got along, especially on the level of cousins, but I'm finding that we are all losing touch, despite (or maybe because of?) all these wonderful ways to keep in touch.

My tribe(s) people with deeply held interests that don't mind people with other interests and like to tell people about their interests. Folks here for the most part. Musicians, but only those who realize how hard music is (there are some who come by it naturally, or believe that what they got isn't really transferable, and it may not be). Sports fans, but only those who like sports not because they think could have done it if they really tried, but those who realize that because they can't make a 17 foot jump shot with 2 people hanging on them or they can't put a bunt down the 3rd base line, so there is a sense of wonder about people who can do that. I feel like there are more sports fans who realize how hard sports is than there are musicians who realize how hard music is. Someone who had lived with a famous chef said that the nicest thing about him was that when she cooked, because he realized how hard cooking could be, always really appreciated her effort. Unfortunately, those kind of people seem to be in short supply.

And thank you again, janie m, for a great post.

From Wikipedia, after:

Misnagdim (מתנגדים‎; also Mitnagdim; singular misnaged/mitnaged) is a Hebrew word meaning "opponents".[3] The term "Misnagdim" commonly refers to opponents of Hasidism

it goes on to say:

The characteristically "Lithuanian" approach to Judaism was marked by a concentration on highly intellectual Talmud study. Lithuania became the heartland of the traditionalist opposition to Hasidism, to the extent that in popular perception "Lithuanian" and "misnaged" became virtually interchangeable terms.

byomtov, I was particularly happy to confirm this for myself, because as a friend observed to me when I first discovered that Lithuanian jews were nicknamed the Opponents by other European jews, "that explains everything about your family".

So that a tendency to opposition is something that, on the whole, I am proud of, particularly as it relates to matters of principle. When we lived in Hong Kong, my parents had a huge social circle, including the then head of the South African diplomatic mission. I remember him saying to my father, in the 70s I guess “Listen man, come back. Petty apartheid has been abolished, it’s all fine now, there’s nothing to keep you away”, and my father answering “And where is Nelson Mandela? Breaking rocks on Robben Island”.

I hope it’s clear from what I have said why the South African/apartheid question was the absolutely defining issue of my upbringing, perhaps as civil rights might have been in the States, to the extent that my parents had been prepared to give up everything in their opposition to it. So when Nelson Mandela was released, my far-flung family, along with thousands of other ex-South Africans, watched weeping as he walked to freedom. And when he stood on the steps of a Johannesburg synagogue, not that long after, and said “Jews of South Africa, come back! Help us build our country.”, my then 76-year old father said “By God, if I were 10 years younger I would.” And when South Africa played New Zealand in the final of the Rugby World Cup, my father put on his Springbok blazer (he had represented his country as an athlete in his youth) and cheered for South Africa with tears in his eyes for the first time in many decades (don’t forget what a sports-obsessed country South Africa is, and he was typical in that respect).

So my people are also people who resist oppression and prejudice. It is one of the reasons why I find the right’s use of the term Social Justice Warrior such an absurd insult, as far as I can see we should all be Social Justice Warriors. But I learnt something else at my parents’ knee. Despite their principles, and the work they did all their lives to further them, they never allowed it to interfere with their friendships and their openness to people of differing views. They were close friends of that South African Consul-General, and (I admit, incomprehensibly to me at the time) they stayed friends with Percy Yutar, the public prosecutor who helped put Nelson Mandela in jail in the first place. Although I would never have put it in this way then, I can see that they hated the sin but not the sinner, and that this attitude now seems highly desirable to me. It explains why I abhor it when we descend into personal abuse of people with whose views we (sometimes even very vehemently) disagree. God knows it's tempting sometimes, but (in the immortal words of the late Dennis Healey, about Margaret Thatcher) it sheds about as much light as an electric drill.


Fascinating comment. Thank you.

May I recommend to you a book called From that Place and Time, by Lucy Dawidowicz?

It is a memoir of her year spent in Vilna in 1938, and her life and activities after her return to the US, just a few days before the invasion of Poland.

First, everyone, thank you for your stories. It certainly has broadened my world to read them.

GftNC, I happened to be in my car this morning, and heard today's "This American Life". Although it wasn't a story about your story, there were enough points of commonality that I thought of you as I listened to the narrative. I don't think this link will work until tomorrow, but here it is for later. If you have a chance to listen, I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks byomtov. And thank you sapient, I'll listen tomorrow.

Maternal grandmother immigrated with her parents from a little hill town in Emiglia Romagna when she was a toddler. Great-grandpa apparently ran away from the Italian army at some point and worked as a circus strongman. When they got here, he dug holes in the ground for the NYC subways. I think his crew boss sponsored their trip over, that was a pretty common practice then.

Maternal grandfather was born in central PA in some kind of mining town, his background is Welsh and maybe PA Dutch and some other northern European hodge-podge.

Maternal grandma settled in East Orange, NJ, which was an Italian ghetto at the time. Maternal grandpa wandered from PA to NY with his restless vain and kind of feckless mom, who took the kids and left his dad because she somehow just knew she was meant for better things than being the prettiest girl in a PA coal town. Wild tales surround that woman, some involving working-men's boarding houses and Colt revolvers. Most of them are probably true. The husband she left behind, my great-grandfather, ended up dying in a mine accident, he went down to try to get some guys out and was killed.

In any case, grandma and grandpa somehow met and fell in love and created a really wonderful, tight-knit, funny family. I think they both just really wanted that, so they somehow made it happen. They were great people, even if my grandpa did once threaten to hang me up by my handle. I had about two dozen cousins on that side, all living on Long Island, in the summer grandma and grandpa would take us to ball games, fishing, donkey baseball, and all kinds of things kids get a kick out of. Ice cream sundaes in the summer time.

Beautiful memories.

Dad's folks as far back as anyone has looked are southern Scot-Irish. Apparently the first arrivals came as indentured labor, which was dead common. One forbear shows up in the 1790 census, along with his 16 slaves, so I guess some of them made their way.

Great-grandad had some money, he left the boys land and the girls houses in town. Grandpa hated every freaking minute of farming, but was apparently kind of a natural mechanical genius. So, whatever money he ever did put together he apparently pissed away on crazy invention schemes. Dad was the youngest of 10, by the time he came along everybody was broke and pissed off.

If I could go back in time and change things, one thing I'd change would be my old man's childhood. It was pretty grim. Grand-dad could apparently be a nasty piece of work on a bad day.

I'm sorry to say I have no memory of my paternal grandmother. She was, by all accounts, a sweet, kind, and very long-suffering woman. When my parents married, she gave my mother a book in which she had pressed the leaves of all of the kinds of plants that grew around my dad's home in low-county GA. I wish I'd known her.

My family moved a lot when I was a kid, because that's how ambitious folks got ahead in the 50's and 60's. I think dad's project in life was getting as far away from the freaking farm as he possibly could. I lived mostly in New England and Long Island, but but in 7 or 8 different places by the time I was 10 or so. Then, mostly in one place for a while.

As young adult I personally bounced around like the sort of clueless goof that I am for several years. Did my four-year degree on the 10-year plan, worked all kinds of weird jobs, lived a kind of throw-together existence for a while, then landed up here in New England again. I've been in and around Salem MA for about 35 years now, so I guess I'm more or less a New Englander now, although not by local standards.

Somehow I semi-stumbled into writing code, which you could still kind of do in the early 80's, and now I write code and play music and hang out with my wife and listen to music and read books.

I ended up pretty happy, mostly through kismet and the kindness of helpful people. I try to never forget that.

Everybody's got a story!

I'm with cleek and wonkie, my people are introverts.

As far as pizza and Italians, I mostly grew up around people who were highly likely to be either Italian or Jewish, or both, often in some combination of other stuff.

I've never gotten used to the idea that Italians are exotic.

just to tie up a couple of threads...

i'm submitting my 23andme dna thingy now, taking their online survey. one of the questions is 'do you consider yourself to be adventurous or timid'.

next question is 'do you have ALS'. yipe.

Maternal grandma settled in East Orange, NJ, which was an Italian ghetto at the time. Maternal grandpa wandered from PA to NY with his restless vain and kind of feckless mom, who took the kids and left his dad because she somehow just knew she was meant for better things than being the prettiest girl in a PA coal town. Wild tales surround that woman, some involving working-men's boarding houses and Colt revolvers. Most of them are probably true. The husband she left behind, my great-grandfather, ended up dying in a mine accident, he went down to try to get some guys out and was killed.

This is so interesting to me, and I certainly don't doubt your family history in the least.

But I have a similarly "wild" great-grandmother, who was despised by the family because she left my great-grandfather with a traveling salesman, and moved west with one, but not all of her children.

However, in my own mind, I am not so sure she was so evil. My great-grandfather spent some time in an asylum after she left. The family wisdom is that he went crazy because she left him. My theory is that she couldn't handle his mental illness. Also, she had several children who were either stillborn, or died in infancy. Depressed, maybe? Also, her first husband's son was a fundamentalist Christian, no drinking, dancing or cards. She moved away with a guy who started a distillary in Oregon.

Okay, hmmmm. Family wisdom says bad woman. I say, maybe, Bad Woman. Or, at least, sad woman.

By the way, divorce was not easily available in the 19th Century. There are no records of her divorce from my great grandfather, but are records of her second marriage.

The history of marriage is fraught.

Again, russell, not to step on your family story. But I question my family story.

The family history is not so much "bad woman" as it is "WTF mom/grandma/great-grandma"?

She apparently did run a working-men's boarding house for a while, about which nobody asks too many questions. Her last husband was about 30 years younger than her, which is not a bad thing necessarily, just a thing. When my mom was really little - like, early grade-school age - she would take her to burlesque shows.

When we were kids and she was in her 70's, she would entertain us all by showing us that she could still kick the ceiling. And she sort of could. And then she'd tell us about the time she shot the laundry.

For a while she lived with my great-aunt and -uncle, and she would run away, take the bus to Brooklyn or Queens, and gamble. Mostly bingo, but whatever she could find. She'd be gone for, like, days, and no-one knew where she was until the cops would call from somewhere in the city and ask my great's to come pick her up.

She was a wild child, ahead of her time.

None of us really judged her about it, it was just kind of a PITA and sort of embarrassing for my grandfather and my great-aunt.

And really entertaining for us kids.

So great, russell, thank you! People are something!

some more than others! lol

Gosh, russell and sapient, very interesting stories and characters. russell, you were so lucky to know your great-grandmother. All my grandparents were already dead when I was born, I can't even imagine knowing anybody that far back!

I knew my grandmothers only.

Yes, this thread still has me smiling,and it started maybe yesterday. Thank you, janiem, for making it happen.

I think his crew boss sponsored their trip over, that was a pretty common practice then.

Another fragment, when my grandmother's first husband (who was American and they were married and lived in India) died, she had 2 sons and no way to support herself in India, so she had to go back to England and it was decided that the older son would go to live with her husband's parents in Alabama (it would be great if, for this story, they lived in Satsuma Alabama, a town named for a Japanese citrus fruit, but that is too much to ask). Not sure how old he was, but old enough to keep his accent.

When WW2 came, he joined the USAAF and was a navigator in a B17, in one of the groups that conducted the Black Thursday raid on Schweinfurt

dramatized in Gregory Peck's movie 12 o'clock High.

He was able to visit my grandmother, and meet my mother before the raid, and but his B-17 was missing in action. He had volunteered to be the navigator for another crew because he wanted to get his 25 missions and complete his tour of duty. My mother found this out when she pulled on a thread in the narrative and ended up talking to someone (the pilot) who had served on my step-uncle's main crew.

Anyway, I'm reminded of this because of Russell's comment, one of the people in my step-uncle's flight sponsored my grandfather and family to emigrate to the US. Of course, it is easy to have a regime where people are sponsoring other people when the country feels confident about itself and feels like things are getting better. Don't see much chance for a sponsorship regime returning, at least under the current president...

my people are introverts

I'm rather fond of my Dad's comment (he being almost as introverted as me):
"I've often been alone, but I've never been lonely."
Sounds like a solid rule of thumb for defining an introvert.

my understanding of the bar for entering the country at the turn of the 20th was:

are you basically healthy
are you not an anarchist
do you either have family here, or someone who promised you a job

get past that, the door was open. we were industrializing, we needed workers.

my uncles got together and sponsored a plaque at Ellis Island in my gran's name.

we're american

lj: gobsmacked. Such a cliche word - sorry, but it leaves me with so much to read now that you wrote that.

I'm not going to comment anymore here, just to let people get a rest from my thread monitoring, and constant, ongoing thanks for what has appeared, and what may appear.

russell, there was one more condition:

Are you not Chinese?

(Cf. the Chinese Exclusion Act.)

true dat

I wonder if any Chinese magically transformed into Japanese en route to America. Just to get around the Exclusion Act.

My first thought was that only the unusually well educated would have thought of it. But then I thought: Wait! Here's a business opportunity, selling national origin conversions to would-be immigrants. Hmmm...

Chinese and Japanese. The requirements for becoming a Japanese citizen are that you exhaustively list every first level relation and provide the requisite certification. This is something that developed as some Chinese and South Americans who were taking Japanese citizenship (which, if they had some Japanese antecedents, was made easier for them than for other immigrants) were then bringing over all manner of 'relatives'. I wonder what kinds of stories their great grandchildren will tell about who their people are...

Somehow I suspect it was far easier to convince American authorities that you were effectively Japanese than to convince Japanese authorities.

I dunno, Americans were finely discerning...


sarcasm tags all around.

I also took a DNA test that laid rest to my theory about a mysterious ancestor that I had thought might have been a former slave. Turns out I'm European, Western on Dad's side and Eastern on Mom's.

Sapient, I'm curious to know if this was at all disappointing for you. I know I became somewhat emotionally invested in what I believed about my background, and it was exciting that my results validated it. I'm guessing if my results went the other way, I would have had the opposite feeling.

Also, what you wrote about the personalization of history resonated with me. I had a good number of ancestors who died in the almshouse, as destitute wards of the state, and I have always taken particular notice of how many people lost young children to disease. What also surprised me was how many people I've found with multiple spouses. I wonder if that was a class thing. My ancestors tended to be more on the "low-born" side.

my wife tells a story about her grandmother (IIRC) who after having discovered that she was pregnant, threw herself down the stairs in order to abort the pregnancy - as she had done before. it worked, as it had before. but this time, it only worked halfway. she was pregnant with twins and one survived. that's now her uncle, and he knows the story. whew.

hsh, I was a bit disappointed. Some strains of my father's family came here on some of the earliest ships, and we discovered some slave owners in the lineage. The thought that I could have been descended from both slave owners and slaves gave me a sense of equilibrium somehow (even though that's silly, of course).

The marriages interested me a lot, because the institution was such a mixed bag for women, both a protection and an enslavement. Divorce courts were a late development: in many jurisdictions, there had to be a legislative decree. So it's no wonder people just took off, fled to a place where no one knew them, and remarried. Throughout history, most divorces have been initiated by women.

Of course, how people handled severe mental illness, or various kinds of incapacity (mental and physical) must have been really difficult when many people lived on subsistence farms, with small children to care for, etc.

I'm sure we've all imagined these things, but the stories of our own relatives make it all more real.

"I dunno, Americans were finely discerning..."

It's easy. Tony Randall played the Chinese guy and Marlon Brando played the Japanese one.

When they weren't available, Jerry Lewis pitched in.

Tony Randall played the Chinese guy and Marlon Brando played the Japanese one.

or maybe mickey rooney.

or Emma Stone.

Well, my dad's mom emigrated from Ireland as a young lady, and his dad came from Germany as a lad with his family (great-granddad was a draft dodger in late-1800s Germany). I suppose there would be some English or Scottish as well as some Nordic in my lineage.

Mom's family is Pennsylvania Dutch (Mennonite until the generation of Mom's parents), so I wouldn't be surprised to find German and Swiss in my genes.

I was born in South Jersey, went to school in Minnesota, New Jersey, and Indiana, and have lived in Michigan since 1978 (except for a couple of years in Japan), but my tribe is the LGBTs of the world. Unless someone is really rude and obnoxious I'm instantly comfortable with my fellow queers of whatever nationality because I can be sure we've had some experiences in common, and that can lead to instant friendship.

Wel, Don, here I am: my great-grandfather was a draft dodger from Germany in the 1880's, too. He was a French speaker, iving in the part of Alsace-Lorraine that had become part of Prussia and thus got drafted into what he saw as the wrong side of the Franco-Prussian war. Thus the decision to whack a guard over the hed with chamber pot and run away from the army. His famiy sent a of their sons to America which mst have been a hardship since they were farmers.

That's the famiy egend and I an sticking to it! BTW my keyboard has ost the abiity to type 's.

On DNA testing: I paid $100 to the National Geographic Society years ago when the Genographic project was announced, and got the kit with the cheek swab. I haven’t kept up with what testing gives you now, but in that project, in those days, it was mitochondrial DNA and the female line for women, and y-chromosome and the male line for men. My brother said he’d do the test if I’d pay, so we could get that side of the family, but we never got around to it, in part because I found the project’s feedback sloppy and irritating and I didn’t want to bother (or pay) any more.

My original report (as with some others here) had one surprise, which was that I had a marker that suggested Ashkenazi ancestry in the distant past. This would have surprised me less if it had been on my Italian side, because for some reason I find it easier to imagine a Jewish ancestor in, let’s say, 1500s Italy than in 1500s England. But it only takes one, so who knows.

Then – my next Genographic report backed off and said there was only a 33% chance that I had an Ashkenazi ancestor.

This did disappoint me a little...I think because I do feel like such a homeless mongrel in so many ways, and it seems to me that if anyone has an automatic “my people” connection, it’s Jews and African Americans. And you’re Jewish if your mother is Jewish, right? So if I had a Jewish foremother.......

But that’s not my cultural or religious heritage, so mostly I’m just joking. Although I did feel very strongly, going home for Thanksgiving with a Jewish friend while I was in college, that Jewish mothers and Italian grandmothers were pretty much the same phenomenon.


Relative to this and to some of GftNC and byomtov’s exchange: one of my all-time favorite books is “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” by Michael Chabon. I’ve read it at least three times, and now I’m forced to realize that although one of the reasons I love it is for its apparently vivid picture of a tightly-knit Jewish community, I am probably missing more than I’m getting when I read it. For instance, there’s a character named Litvak, with probably some undertones of byomgov and GftNC were discussing above. And a whole lot else, no doubt.

hsh: When I was a kid, I would spend a lot of time outside in the sun, and I would get very dark. Sometimes people would "mistake" me for a black person.

Same for me. Getting a tan was high fashion in the sixties, and we had a beautiful beach in my home town where a lot of us teenagers hung out in the summer. My maternal grandmother (the not-Italian one) did a lot of tut-tutting about my tan; when she was a girl, having a tan was a sign that you had to labor outdoors for your living, and were probably from one of those interloping ethnic groups to boot. Plus, she was a redhead with freckles.

I was mistaken for a black person, or at least part of a black family, on one memorable occasion when I was coming back from California to Ohio on the train at the age of eleven. That’s too long a story for a comment thread, but I remember being deeply pleased that I was assumed to be part of that family.

One of these distant relatives says that my surname, or some version of it, was brought into Italy from Spain five hundred years ago.

Hey JanieM, the expulsion of the jews from Spain was in 1492, so maybe that could explain your possible jewish ancestor. Although the Spanish jews are counted, I think, as Sephardi, so there's that. My uncle (father's brother) did some genealogical research once which suggested that originally their family had been in Spain before being expelled, and my father certainly could have looked Spanish (or Italian: dark hair, dark eyes, tanned easily) as do 2 of his three children. The whole thing is deeply complicated, I think.

lj: Musicians, but only those who realize how hard music is (there are some who come by it naturally, or believe that what they got isn't really transferable, and it may not be). Sports fans, but only those who like sports not because they think could have done it if they really tried, but those who realize that because they can't make a 17 foot jump shot with 2 people hanging on them or they can't put a bunt down the 3rd base line, so there is a sense of wonder about people who can do that. I feel like there are more sports fans who realize how hard sports is than there are musicians who realize how hard music is.

For now I just want to say how much this resonated with me. For later – maybe a post. The list is getting longer.

GftNC -- it's an interesting theory, I hadn't thought about those dates. And maybe it will even turn out to be relevant if I ever do a DNA test to get my dad's side of the family. But this marker was on my mother's side, which is the English/not-Italian side.

Then again -- some of the scattering after the expulsion could have been to England...? I don't know much about that history. I can only agree wholeheartedly that the whole thing is deeply complicated. And fascinating, however frivolous as a hobby (per hsh :-).

A number of comments (from sapient, hsh, russell, probably others) brought to mind this quote from Alice Walker:

To acknowledge our ancestors means
we are aware that we did not make
ourselves, that the line stretches
all the way back, perhaps, to God; or
to Gods. We remember them because it
is an easy thing to forget: that we
are not the first to suffer, rebel,
fight, love and die. The grace with
which we embrace life, in spite of
the pain, the sorrows, is always a
measure of what has gone before.

My maternal grandmother was the second of her parents’ seven children and the only girl. Her mother married at seventeen, had a baby roughly every two years after that, and died at the age of thirty-one. My grandmother – one of the world’s champion grudge-holders – blamed her father for her mother’s death (maybe my g. grandmother was ill post-partum, or utterly exhausted, and my g. grandfather wouldn’t keep the house warm enough?), and never forgave him.

My grandma was eleven when her mother died, and her father married again about a year and a half later. His new wife had a bunch of kids of her own, and they had four daughters together, my grandma’s half-sisters, three of whom were around somewhere in the area when I was growing up, but whom I never knew – because grudges, I guess. My grandma was sent to boarding school for five years, by the grace of some relatively well-off relative who offered to pay for it, and I suspect that she probably never knew her half-sisters very well in the first place, being so much older and then out on her own at a young age while they were growing up.

Meanwhile, my great-grandfather committed suicide when he was about forty-five, possibly because he had been diagnosed with ALS. His youngest daughter was born twelve days later, on his birthday. Eventually (IIRC), she too committed suicide, possibly after a cancer diagnosis, although her husband also died young and I may be mixing up the stories and the motivations. The two children that survived this couple were adopted by one of my great-uncles and his wife, and I knew them as distant cousins when I was growing up, maybe ten or so years older than I was.

My great-grandfather died right around the time my grandma got married. A few years later, my grandfather (ten years older than Grandma) died, probably from ill-health that resulted from his having been gassed twice in WWI. My grandmother never remarried, or even considered it. She raised her own two children (one of them my mother), and made her tribe of younger brothers welcome in her home as well. She had almost nothing in the way of material resources, but she had energy, ingenuity, determination, and skills (gardening, canning, sewing), and she somehow made it work. As I’ve said...again and again...I adored her.

(There are a lot of hedges and question marks in this story precisely because so much of it is hearsay across the generations. Some of it – birth and death dates, WWI exploits – is verifiable, to whatever extent you believe that facts are facts. My own minor dabbling in genealogical research has led me to believe that even “facts” can’t be counted on, but that’s yet another story.)

Oh yes, JanieM, of course, you did say on your mother's side - I'm sorry, it's been a bit of a stressful few hours (ancient motherwise), so I haven't been concentrating.

Re: admission to England: they were expelled from England in 1290 and not readmitted til 1656, so they would have to have tarried somewhere else for over a century and a half (perfectly possible of course). I don't know much either, have had to look up those dates!

I don't know much about my family beyond my great grandparents, except all of my g-Grands were born in the US. My maternal great-grandparents(he was a stepfather to my grandmother) were very majestic, she from upstate NY and he from parts unknown, they lived in South Carolina in a huge home and were somehow more well off than the rest of the family, but with little to show for it at the end of their lives. She was constantly dressed to the 9's and had matching long haired large but thin white dogs that accompanied her everywhere. I never saw a picture of her without the dogs.

My maternal grandparents were the definition of middle class, moved to Dallas for my grandmothers health, she taught school, he was a salesman and a Mason. Devout Methodists, Sunday dinners with the family, conservative.

In schizophrenic dissonance my paternal g-grands were from somewhere in southern Appalachia, where unknown to me and my family, but my grandfather brought my grandmother to Dallas, also for her health, and built a little house on land he homesteaded. Found work as a laborer in at the power company and worked his way all the way into the accounting department. But mostly hunted and trapped with my Dada for food, me grandmother raised all their vegetables and they traded pelts for stables at the general store. My Dad trapped skunks because he got spending money for the pelts.

Both my paternal great-grandmothers came to live with them when they became widowed. One in a little two room house down the street, she was full blood Cherokee, the other lived in a little trailer on the land, eventually getting electricity from the house. They didn't speak to each other, no clue why, nor was it something you asked. Grudges?

GftNC, back at the top: Will definitely get back to this when I have had time to think how much to reveal online. Does anybody else worry about this, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Big question, it has been on my mind since you wrote it. Maybe a topic for another thread.

My European ancestry is so richly mixed that it's tiring to write down; "Scots-Irish/English/Norwegian/German" is a passable shorthand but it's probably way more complicated than that. In one census I just identified my ethnicity as "American" only to read an analysis some years later that pointed out that claiming "American" ethnicity matched well with a lot of indicators of being a white racist.

wonkie: My granddad shows as having arrived from Germany in 1878, age 5 or 6. Family legend is that the German military service at the time consisted of so many years on, a few years off, then so many on again. Great-granddad was a poor farmer from the area around Stuttgart who had finished his first tour, then during the off time decided to pick up the family and move to America. They settled in South Jersey, where granddad grew up, married an Irish-Catholic lass from around Belfast, and raised a family of six kids.

Back to the starting point.

I have circles of relatives and friends based on a variety of commonalities, but no one “tribe” that’s my “home.” This is a big topic that raises big questions, including some about the relationship between the individual and the community. For some people it’s no big deal. For me it’s a central quest/obsession.

Hey, we all gotta have hobbies. ;-)

In writing about her wedding in “With a Daughter’s Eye,” Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, suggested that people “owe [meaning] to a larger community.” As a gay person, I’d say that who owes what to whom is much more complicated than that. I grew up without even knowing there was such a thing as homosexuality, and that ignorance twisted my life in ways that can be laid squarely at the door of my community. I don’t want to push the “twisted” concept too hard; I’ve had a pretty good life, and everyone has struggles of one sort or another. But my community kept a crucial part of my identity from me, and would have treated me perfectly viciously if I had discovered it on my own and tried to live it out loud at the time of life when young people start to look around for love interests.

So - what I “owe” my community is a much messier question than perhaps MCB wanted it to be.

Tribes have edges. Communities of all sorts have boundaries and fringe elements and definitions of outsiders, and are subject to splintering along various fault lines. People circle the wagons and define in- and out-groups. What this has meant for me – in part, no doubt, because of my own personal quirks and qualities – is that whenever I edge toward feeling like I’m part of some community, I also end up feeling that I can’t truly be part of it unless I hide or minimize some part of myself that I don’t in fact want to let go of.

I used to read The Dish pretty faithfully, even though I often didn’t agree with Andrew Sullivan and or like him much. After Sally Ride died, Andrew was a perfect shit about the fact that she had remained closeted during her life. Not long after that I had had enough, and I quit The Dish cold turkey.

But at the time of Ride’s death, people pushed back hard at Andrew for his mean-spiritedness, and – to give him credit – he published a lot of the pushback. I wrote him a short email telling him I thought he was full of it, and again to his credit, he asked me to explain why. Unfortunately I was super busy just then, and my 1400-word reply wasn’t finished in time for him to use any of it on the blog. But part of what I said was that I had found it much harder to know my place and make my way in the world as a female math nerd than as a gay person. I felt that what Sally Ride had accomplished was immense and admirable, and there was no need for him to pick away at what she hadn’t done – no one, for crying out loud, can do everything.

Tribes have edges, and the edges are raggedy. After I read James Gleick’s “Chaos” many years ago, I wrote a little program that made images using Newton’s method (don’t ask me to explain at this late date). I see the example below as a metaphor for our human tendency to want clear boundaries, and to create in-groups designed to leave other people out. In this image, it’s impossible to include all the (let’s say) yellow points while excluding all the blue, green, and red. The only way to have an area that’s only one color is to exclude some of your fellow yellows, or blues or reds or greens.

I end up on the fringe of most communities I approach – which, in the end, is okay. Edges are happenin’ places, just look at them.

Newton's method

Big question, it has been on my mind since you wrote it. Maybe a topic for another thread.

Thanks JanieM, I'm glad you referred to it, because when nobody else did I figured that it wasn't a concern to others. I'll look forward to anything you have to say, your posts so far have been great; thought-provoking and also getting the best out of everybody, which at the moment seems even more desirable than usual!

my wife tells a story about her grandmother (IIRC) who after having discovered that she was pregnant, threw herself down the stairs in order to abort the pregnancy - as she had done before. it worked, as it had before. but this time, it only worked halfway. she was pregnant with twins and one survived. that's now her uncle, and he knows the story. whew.

I have a recollection of being told by my mother that her mother - my grandmother - had done this. My mother was a twin whose twin brother did not live beyond infancy, if he was even delivered as a live birth. I'm not sure. It's one of those strange things you're told as a kid that you don't ask about later and doubt you remember correctly. I'm not sure if my mother was referring to some other pregnancy or what at this point. I'm still not asking.

Lots of descendants of draft-dodgers here; my maternal great-great grandfather also came to the U.S. from Germany in the 1870s. Actually met one of his son's, my grandfather's Uncle John, at a family reunion in the early 80s, he was about 95, but when re-introduced to my mother remembered that she had been a blonde in her youth. My father's family goes back potentially to the Mayflower, two brothers with our relatively uncommon last name are on the manifest. I don't think all the links in the chain were ever documented.

My father's mother, who I never met (she died a month before I was born), reportedly spent a great deal of effort to put together genealogical records sufficient to get her membership in Daughters of the American Revolution. In my father's telling, if she'd known about all the horse thieves and other assorted ne'er-do-wells that would come to light she never would have started the project.

Instead of tribe the term that makes more sense to me is my family by choice. Some of it's temperament, some of it's years of hanging out at our neighborhood bar that will be celebrating it's 30th anniversary next month (but feels much older), some of it both.

I can't say for sure that my Italian great grandfather was a draft-dodger, but his WWI draft registration had his country of origin listed as Austria-Hungary, which was total BS. He was from Agnone in Molise, which wasn't even close to being in dispute and clearly within Italy. I know southern Italians left because all the political power rested in the north, and poor southern Italians paid a disproportionate share of the country's taxes.

I can image claiming Austria-Hungary as his homeland as a way of saying there was no way he was fighting, even as a US soldier, for a corrupt Italian government that worked for the interests of the north at the expense of the south.

I don’t know if this this thread’s dead past the point of resuscitation, but here it goes.

JanieM: So...are we really Spanish? Nah, five hundred years is a long time. But the lighthearted question does come from a more serious one, which is, what does it mean, genetically, to be “Italian” or “French” or “Indonesian”?


I remember reading once online – too lazy/busy to chase down a link – that a study of DNA across Europe suggested just what you would expect, that the people on the fringes – Italians and Finns were prominently mentioned – were the most heterogenous. So there’s yet another way in which it becomes at least bemusing, if not downright problematic, to define what an “Italian” actually is.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about. My thinking is that it depends on what heterogeneous and homogeneous mean and how being heterogeneous maps to being admixed.

I’m most familiar with how AncestryDNA and somewhat familiar with how 23andMe does things, but I think all the various companies who attempt to determine ethnicity do it the same way for the most part – they test a number of people native to various places and look for patterns. If there’s a pattern or sequence of DNA bases (A, C, G, and T) that is far more common among people from a particular place than it is elsewhere, they conclude that people whose DNA follows that pattern have ancestry from that place. From that, you can find larger patterns of populations that make sense as regions of ethnicity, at least from a genetic standpoint. “What blobs on a map best puts the populations that live in those blobs together such that these common DNA patterns will be best grouped together to make any given blob the most genetically distinct from the other blobs?”

AncestryDNA will commit every single percentage of your DNA to a particular ethnic region. They acknowledge that these percentages are only estimates, and they do group the regions together on a more or less continental level, giving you percentages at the continental level that are simply the sums of the specific regions within the respective continent (not exactly continent, but close enough conceptually). 23andMe does it a bit more hierarchically, where some of your DNA won’t get placed in the most specific or lowest-level ethnic region. Some might simply be “broadly European” or “broadly northern European” rather than, say, “Scandinavian.”

23andMe’s approach makes a little more sense to me, because there have to be patterns of DNA that are particularly common to larger regions than are others. You might have a sequence of DNA that 80% of Iberian Peninsula natives have, but that only 10% of people in the rest of Europe and only 15% of people in North Africa have, and that’s so rare in the rest of the world that it’s negligible. But you might also find a pattern of DNA that 80% of all Europeans have in a well-distributed way across the continent and that only 10% of North Africans have and 5% of Middle Easterners have, and that is negligibly rare elsewhere. (I’m just making these numbers up, BTW.) One it make sense to say is specifically Iberian (though still European), but the other is generally European (including but not specific to the Iberian Peninsula).

So AncestryDNA will tell you that some percentage of people native to the Iberian Peninsula will have DNA that appears for be from somewhere else. The top of the list is Italy/Greece, which 69% of Iberian natives will have DNA apparently from. Well, if that many Iberians have it, why isn’t it Iberian? Or why isn’t it both Iberian and Italian/Greek? I’m guessing it’s that a given Italy/Greece-designated sequence that shows up in natives of the Iberian peninsula is still far more common in Italy/Greece and that your average Iberian still has a lot more Iberian sequences than sequences from Italy/Greece, since they don’t say how much Italy/Greece DNA the average Iberian has (just what percentage of them have some). But, still, you would think there’d be some correlation between how common a given region’s DNA is in another region and how much of that DNA the average native would have.

Another thing they tell you is what percentage of DNA the average person native to a given region has that is from that region. Iberians are highly admixed, with only about half of the average Iberian’s DNA being Iberian.

So you could say that being Spanish or Portuguese doesn’t mean much from a genetic standpoint. Or you could say that being Spanish or Portuguese means that you probably have a mixture of deeper regional ancestry, and that is simply part of being Spanish or Portuguese. Further, there may well be a theme to the variation that you find among Spanish and Portuguese people – an average or typical mixture that most people don’t vary very much from. It’s possible that those themes aren’t exactly the same for the Spanish and the Portuguese. Maybe the Portuguese have, on average, more British and Irish DNA than the Spanish, and the Spanish have more western European DNA on average than the Portuguese. (Again, I’m making the specifics up.)

So how does being admixed map to being heterogeneous? If a population isn’t very admixed - as the Irish, who have 95% Irish DNA on average according to AncestryDNA, are not - it’s probably safe to say they’re relatively homogeneous genetically. But, conversely, does being admixed necessarily imply being heterogeneous?

I mentioned before my mythically Spanish great grandfather (“We’re white! Really! We are!”), who it turned out was actually Puerto Rican. So my father and I have a lot of DNA matches who are Puerto Rican, especially my father, being twice as Puerto Rican as I am. He has, as matches of any background go, TONS of matches. He has, so far (the list grows as more people do the test), almost 800 4th cousins or closer. From what I’ve seen of other people’s tests, including mine, that’s a sh*t-ton or a butt-load, depending on your preferred system of measurement.

I’d say that more than half of his matches are Puerto Ricans. I’m guessing that’s for two reasons. One is that I think Puerto Ricans, being admixed, are curious about their deeper ethnicity (beyond being Puerto Rican, that is). I also suspect they want to know how much Native American DNA they have, because being Taino is a source of pride in Puerto Rico. All of which is to say that lots of Puerto Ricans are taking the DNA test. The other reason I think he has so many Puerto Rican matches is that Puerto Ricans are highly interrelated. Why do I say that?

One of the things you can do is look at any of your DNA matches and see how many 4th cousins or closer you share. I can look at my dad’s closest non-Puerto Rican matches and see that they’ll share a handful of matches – like 3 to, at the most, maybe 10. I can pull up even a distant Puerto Rican match, and he’ll get pages of shared 4th cousins or closer. That means from 50 to into the hundreds.

What I think is going on is that many of the Puerto Ricans who are DNA matches are not as closely related as they appear. Someone who looks to be a 4th cousin may actually be related several different ways further back in the generations – say, a double 8th cousin and a 6th cousin once removed and a half 7th cousin, or something like that. It’s an island. It’s not that big. It hasn’t had much immigration for a fairly long time.

As far as admixture goes, here’s a typical ethnicity profile for a Puerto Rican, with regions in descending order by percentage: Iberian Peninsula, Italy/Greece, Native American, Africa North, Senegal, Ireland, Africa Southeastern Bantu, Benin/Togo, Europe West, Europe East, Scandinavia, Nigeria, Middle East, Great Britain, European Jewish, Ivory Coast/Ghana, Cameroon/Congo.

Assuming I’m right about the interrelatedness of Puerto Ricans (or, perhaps, given the apparent interrelatedness of Puerto Ricans), and given that there’s not much question about their being highly admixed, what does that mean about admixture and heterogeneousness?

When I first told my father that we weren’t Spanish, but Puerto Rican, based on records I managed to find and before either of us had taken the DNA test, he said something along the lines of “Well, you can be from Puerto Rico and be anything. It’s like being from the United States. That doesn’t mean anything.”

Well, actually, it does. Looking at the genetic profile a few paragraphs before, you will see what almost any Puerto Ricans profile will look like generally. There may be a few regions that aren’t in the one above, there may be a few in the one above not in a given Puerto Rican’s profile, they may not be in exactly the same order, but they will be very similar.

It may not be an old ethnicity, genetically speaking, or even more generally – culturally, linguistically, etc. But, as I wrote before: It’s an island. It’s not that big. It hasn’t had much immigration for a fairly long time. There may not have been anyone in the world 500 years ago like today’s Puerto Ricans, but they are likely as distinct, if not more so, than many ethnic groups (certainly, "nationalities") in the Old World.

After I read James Gleick’s “Chaos” many years ago

wow. what a book that was. blew my mind. i spent months and months grinding away, trying to make the fastest Mandelbrot renderer i could. i even wrote my own windowing GUI system on the PC (this was before MS Windows was usable) to run my fendering app.

here's one of my favorite images from those days:

fish eating fish, forever.

hsh: That's an utterly fantastic ... I won't say "comment," how about "essay"? I'll come back to it this evening, FSM willing.

cleek: really cool image. You obviously worked a lot harder on this stuff than I did. I have a notion that when I retire I'm going to go back to playing with images like this, but we'll see.

hsh: concerning your dad's 800 4th cousins or closer, is it really that surprising?

Suppose you have 9 first cousins (I have 18 (that I know of, and that's another story)), or 4.5 on each side of your family. Suppose each of those cousins has 4.5 kids, that's 9*4.5=40.5 second cousins, do that twice more and you have 820+ fourth cousins, or over a thousand "4th or closer." Assuming "only" eight first cousins and 4 per person per generation, you still get 680 at the "4th or closer" degree.

If my math is right, in cultures where big families are common, these numbers shouldn't be that rare, should they?

If my math is right, in cultures where big families are common, these numbers shouldn't be that rare, should they?

Maybe not, but how many of them would you expect to have taken the same DNA test you did? And, of those, given the randomness in DNA inheritance, how many would you expect to share enough DNA with for the relationship to be detected by the test?

Once you get past 2nd cousins, the probability of sharing an appreciable amount of identical-by-descent DNA drops off rapidly.

Maybe not, but how many of them would you expect to have taken the same DNA test you did? And, of those, given the randomness in DNA inheritance, how many would you expect to share enough DNA with for the relationship to be detected by the test?

Good point....

More later. :-)

Just for perspective, my wife has only 37 4th cousins or closer on Ancestry.

(She's actually the reason I did the test. She took it because she was adopted and was looking for clues as to her biological father's identity. She had already found out who her biological mother was and that she had a biological (at least half-, as far as we knew at the time) sister. Her sister did turn out to be a half-sister.

My wife has been able to narrow down her own biological father to one of two brothers, based on a first cousin who popped up one day, and recently found out with a high degree of certainty who her sister's father was after sleuthing some of her sister's DNA matches' family trees and obtaining a document with his signature that matched the handwriting on a note her sister had gotten from their, at the time, still-anonymous biological mother.

It's all very crazy how stuff came together. My wife's first-cousin DNA match's sister, who would also be my wife's biological first cousin, just happens to be married to a guy I work with, too.)

hsh – Thanks again! You've given me plenty to think about, not least because you've addressed a lot that I've thought and wondered about so coherently.

I could go on and on…but will break my responses into a several comments, and probably won't finish tonight. If ever.

You wrote: Someone who looks to be a 4th cousin may actually be related several different ways further back in the generations – say, a double 8th cousin and a 6th cousin once removed and a half 7th cousin, or something like that.

This reminds me of something I've thought about in the reverse direction. I have two genealogy books that trace two of my ancestral lines back to Connecticut in the 1630s. In both cases, the starting point is someone ten generations back from me (if you count my mother – these are her ancestors – as #1). Just by arithmetic, I should have 2^10 ancestors in that generation, or about a thousand.

I've always figured there was surely some crossover in the lines, so that the number wouldn't really be quite that high. Then again, the U.S. is much more sprawling than Puerto Rico, so maybe one wouldn't assume quite as much of the double cousin (etc.) phenomenon. Then again again, Connecticut in the 1600s didn't have that many people in it. Then again again agin, the two lines didn't meet until my great-great grandparent's generation (7th from the start, 4th back from me) – in Ohio, where a lot of people from CT (and no doubt elsewhere in NE) emigrated when the Western Reserve was being opened up. (There are a lot of NE Ohio place names that echo CT names….)


The genealogy books bemuse me. If I were to take up genealogy as a serious hobby, what I would want to do is trace backwards from myself to see all the branching variety. What the people who compiled these books did was to trace their paternal lines backward to the starting points on this continent and then branch forward from there. Both books were no doubt the labor of a lifetime, so more power to them, it's just not what I would have done.

This shades off into the topic of 23andMe and AncestryDNA, which I'll save for a separate comment.

The Genographic project gave me info framed not in terms of sequences of bases, but of mutations/markers. It's a long time ago, and I have no idea where I put the paperwork, but it was something like: we know that this mutation cropped up in a particular vicinity in a particular time frame, so we can say with some confidence that one of your ancestors was in that area at that time. (This reminds me: they were particularly interested in migration pathways.)

They must have said something about ethnicity, because I remember being struck by the Ashkenazi possibility. But I don't remember the rest of it.

You wrote: So AncestryDNA will tell you that some percentage of people native to the Iberian Peninsula will have DNA that appears for be from somewhere else.

This links up with the migration topic, because from the longer-term standpoint, all the DNA on the Iberian Peninsula came from somewhere else. So there's also a question of "when." I.e., when did the Iberian DNA that *doesn't* come from somewhere coalesce in that region to something we're now calling "Iberian"? -- Something like your notion about the existence of a Puerto Rican ethnicity, which is presumably more recent, but not different in kind.


I'd like to take up some other subtopics – most particularly the one that GftNC raised – of privacy and security online. Maybe tomorrow.

So there's also a question of "when." I.e., when did the Iberian DNA that *doesn't* come from somewhere coalesce in that region to something we're now calling "Iberian"?

This is what Ancestry puts forth regarding their ethnicity estimates:

Your ethnicity estimate shows where your ancestors came from hundreds to thousands of years ago. We calculate it by comparing your DNA to the DNA of a reference panel of people with deep roots to specific places around the world.

As science improves and our DNA database grows, our ability to estimate your ethnicity gets better and better. You may get updated results that include a new mix of ethnicities.

They very recently started looking at people's DNA matches' family trees for birthplaces of ancestors to create what they're calling "Genetic Communities."

On that:

Genetic Communities show where your family probably lived in the past few hundred years. We create these by identifying groups of AncestryDNA members who are genetically connected to each other.

As science improves and our DNA database grows, the communities you’re connected to might change.

The Genographic Project appears to be heavily focused on mitochondrial and Y DNA, which doesn't get "shuffled" every generation the way autosomal DNA does, so they can look much further back in time. AncestryDNA doesn't even look at Y or mitochondrial DNA.

I'm actually considering getting a Y DNA test done, only because I can't find anything on my Puerto Rican great grandfather prior to his being in the army in Puerto Rico in 1907 or after the 1920 census, when he was either back in the army or working for the army doing construction at Camp/Fort Meade in Maryland.

I've been suspecting he may have used an alias, only because my father, with his thousands of Puerto Rican DNA matches, doesn't have a single one with our surname in their family tree.

If some high percentage of men with the same Y chromosome I have are named, say, Rivera, I'll be onto something.

I forgot to mention that the Genographic Project uses Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, that's why I wanted my brother to do the test.

It would be fun to do a video-like graphic representation of the migrations and the coalescings into ethnicities and the diasporas etc.

My mantra: more when I have more time.

Here's an interesting one for you:

My wife found out that she's half Polish and half German. Her biological mother's family goes back in short order to Poland and is solidly Polish. Her biological father's is the same way, but going back to Germany. Her ethnicity breakdown was 53% Eastern Europe, 29% Great Britain, 12% Western Europe, and 6% Italy/Greece (much simpler than mine).

So the Polish is pretty straightforward, with an estimate very close to half coming from Eastern Europe. But why so much more Great Britain than Western Europe? (We'll just blame the Italy/Greece on the Roman Empire.)

The question in my mind is whether her relatively recent German ancestors had not-so-recent ancestors from Great Britain, or whether they just happened to have the same deeper Western European ancestry as the Angles, Saxons, or Jutes who eventually left what is now Germany to greatly proliferate in Great Britain.

In other words, is that DNA designated as "coming from" Great Britain actually Western European DNA that later became *far more common in Great Britain* than it now is in Western Europe, such that it appears to be "originally" (not really, but you know what I mean) British DNA, and that there are some people (not too many, or it wouldn't look British) in Western Europe who still carry it without necessarily having any ancestors who lived in Great Britain?

(Or is it some combination of the two?)

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