How tracing my genealogy has brought meaning into my life

Dec 24, 2015 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Image: By:Andrew Bret Wallis

My mother and I rarely fight. We had one big blowout a couple of years ago, I don’t even remember what it was over, but I do remember that after not speaking for two days she called and said, “We’re just one mother and one daughter.” I cried. She cried. We made up. But she’s right. I have no biological siblings, it’s just us. I do have an extraordinary stepfather who all others should model themselves after, and I have a much older stepbrother who was away at college when I was nine and our parents married.

The idea that we were indeed just one mother and one daughter stuck with me. It’s one of those truths that gives you both comfort and dread. Which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that I decided to do my genealogy. I figured, there have to be more people out there who share my DNA! I asked genealogist, Adam Kanciper to help me out and what I discovered was fascinating.

The first thing he did was ask what information I already had. Then he asked to hear stories that had been passed down along the way. It seems that every family has their family legends. Stories that seem too romantic or fantastical to be true. He asked, “What do you know and what do you think?” I told him the names of the few family members I was sure of, which were very few. My mom had no family left, so when she says, “just one mother and one daughter” she means that literally. Her sister, uncle, cousins and parents are all gone. It is just us.

The second thing Kanciper did was hand me a DNA test. I spit into a tube, and for $99 they traced my DNA (that irrefutable matter that tells you everything about your biological history) all the way back to what seemed like the beginning of time. I found that not only was I related to my best friend's husband's family, but that I was 18% Scandinavian! I knew that my family was French. However, I always suspected there was some Irish in my blood, primarily based on the absurd fact that I dated Irish men almost exclusively. Kanciper found that I was 0% Irish, and that my family was from — not just France — but specifically, Paris. They had been there for many, many generations. He speculated that the Scandanavian was when the Vikings came through. He also found that I was related to several French scientists and a WWI veteran, Jacques Spreiregen who founded Kangol.

The coup de grâce (since I’m French) was that Kanciper found cousins of mine all over the world, and more importantly, two less than 8 miles from my home. I emailed one to introduce myself. That was four years ago and now she and her sister are two of my closest confidants.

Knowing who you are is more than just your personality. So much of your identity is tied to your history and your family. Therefore, the more you know, the more connected you feel. We live in such a tech-heavy world, the idea of being connected is appealing. Kanciper says clients have found secret lives family members hid, he’s helped adopted kids find their family tree, and most importantly, he says, “If you don’t know who your ancestors were and what they died of, you can’t build a real health history for yourself.” So, it’s more than just curiosity if you descended from royalty and if cousin Kate Middleton will be coming to your wedding, but a real legacy that you can leave your children.

When I connected with my cousins and learned about who I was and where I was from, the feeling was indescribable. That feeling is what made this the perfect shower gift for a close friend who was about to give birth to her first child, a girl. They didn’t need any more Baby Bjorn items and I didn’t want to get her something she would grow out of in two months. I wanted something unique for her. So I had Kanciper do the family’s genealogy for the baby. With very little information, he traced her family back, finding that she was related to Mark Twain!

She was so blown away that she hired Kanciper to trace her best friend's family as a wedding gift. I can’t think of a more personal, special gift. During times when we’re thinking about family — weddings, baby showers and the holidays — giving the gift of family history is unparalleled.

Genealogists are able to get information that regular folks never could. Kanciper tells me, “There is a tiny fraction of relevant information that has been digitized and is available online.” Which is why Google doesn’t work. Kanciper has traveled to archives all over the world. He’s been everywhere from Ireland and England to Salt Lake City (the geology research capital of the world) and The National Archives. He’s even gone to St. Petersberg, Russia for a client. “Many times you don’t know what you need until you, yourself, have sifted through it.”

Finding out the origins of my family and sharing that with my mother not only made us feel closer but it made us feel as if we are more than just one mother and one daughter.