by Elise Seyfried
It arrived in the mail in early September — an amazingly small box from Ancestry.com containing an even smaller vial, into which I was instructed to spit. The sealed, saliva-filled vial was sent off for DNA testing, and in just a few weeks I would finally learn the truth: I am part Martian. Seriously, though, I was eager to get info about my forebears, if only to reassure myself that I have interesting relatives that go waaaaay back. At least I hope they are interesting. Famed artists come to mind, as do royals and war heroes. I’d even take a notorious criminal! Just don’t let me have sprung from a long, dreary line of “average” people!
I joined Ancestry last month to trace my Irish roots on my mom’s side. I know precious little: our family on the Emerald Isle were the Sheridans (hence, my oldest son’s name). Most of them lived in and around County Longford. My great-grandma Minnie Sheridan emigrated to America sometime in the late 1880s. She, too, named one of her sons Sheridan; he died at age 4. My grandma Rose and great-uncle Frank spent a couple of childhood years in Ireland, where they got to know their aunt Roseanne and uncle Felix. My mom’s brother Jack and his wife traveled over there many years ago and were, I believe, somewhat successful in finding family connections. But I never learned what those connections were, and honestly, until recently I was not that curious. And my 29 years of intense parenting (I count the exhausting years from Sheridan’s birth until Julie turned 18) left me with no energy to pursue this knowledge.
Becoming a grandmother has been like flipping a switch. All of a sudden, our past has become very important to me, a mystery to solve, a gift to share and pass along to my precious little ones someday. I scan family photos like crazy; I gather up letters written by my own grandmas and mom in hopes that my grandchildren may one day want to read them.
Last night, I got an email from Ancestry. My DNA results were available at last! With a bit of trepidation (and a bit of excitement), I opened the email and saw my results. I am, as I had expected, mostly Irish (87%). But I am also 8% English. The other 5%? A blend of Scandinavian, Eastern European and even Russian. Hmmm, interesting. Then I looked at the names the Ancestry website listed that were DNA matches. I found almost 100 people! That’s the good news. The not-so-good? Only one of those people was even as close as a third cousin. Everyone else was a fourth (and beyond) cousin—and even then, most were qualified with the words “possible match” — not really close enough to contact for the most part.
What now? My sister Carolyn informed me that the Irish government recently released more old records that no doubt have a wealth of births and deaths chronicled. So I imagine that’s my next step. I’m planning to travel to Ireland with my daughters in June to go to County Longford and try and meet any kin remaining there. Meanwhile, there is much more digging to be done, and so far I am enjoying the hunt.
Whether or not I ever discover anyone “notable” (though I have my fingers crossed about the late, great Irish playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan), I guess it doesn’t really matter. I know I’ve been a bit of a snob about my more distant relations. So what if there are no superstars in the lineup? So what if every single one of them turns out to be an average, everyday person? And after all, how “notable” will I be in a hundred years? Not very!
I see life as a very long chain connecting us, one to another, down through the centuries. I see a beautiful, unbroken chain of clasped hands, wrinkled old hands and baby soft hands, from every time and every place. So why not learn something about the rest of the chain, the people holding our hands from generation to generation, many of them folks whose traits we have inherited, traits we continue to pass along? Why not expand our understanding of family?
Because, in the end, I believe that it is one chain. And we are, all of us, one family.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. Her recently self-published book, “Unhaling: On God, Grace and a Perfectly Imperfect Life,” is a collection of essays, humorous but with a spiritual focus, based on her life as a mom and church worker. The book can be purchased for $15 plus shipping through www.eliseseyfried.com.