It was about this time last year when my hubby asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Approximately 30 seconds later, I was online, ordering an Ancestry DNA kit.
When I bought it, I knew next to nothing about genetic genealogy. My hope in testing was that I would put a few family rumours to rest, one way or another, and perhaps chip away at a brick wall or two. I had no idea what to expect, and no idea what I was doing.
The test kit took what seemed to me forever to arrive. When it finally did, I busted it open, read the instructions, and cursed a lot. One was not to eat, drink, or smoke prior to taking the test, and I had done all three. I'd have to wait until the next morning. When I did get to take the test, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities. As I spat into that tiny vial, I wondered what I might find. Would family rumours be proved correct, or would they be put to rest? Would I finally figure out who my great-grandfather was? Were there any family secrets lurking out there that my saliva had the power to reveal?
I spat. I sealed. I sent. And I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I received an email that took me to my results. As I watched Ancestry's fancy-shmancy presentation of the final result, I could barely contain myself; I had heard so many stories from others, ranging from devastating to thrilling, and each one served to feed my anticipation. Would I learn of a new ancestral line? Would I find out my research had led me astray? There were so many possibilities, and I was just seconds away from a whole new world of genealogical discovery.
What I actually learned is that I am really, really white. Not at all surprisingly, my results came back as 94% European. The family stories of Native ancestry were immediately put to bed, and those who had heard about an ancestor from somewhere hot and sandy were to be disappointed. What was a bit surprising, however, was the breakdown of my results. All of my research had taught me that the vast majority of my known ancestors were English, Scottish, and Welsh, so the 59% England/Ireland/Scotland/Wales result made complete sense, and was a much appreciated confirmation of 12 years of research. The remaining 35% came as a surprise, though - 21% from "Europe West", which Ancestry defines as "Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein", and 14% from Scandinavia. Aside from a 5x great-grandfather from Germany, I knew of no ancestors from either Western Europe or Scandinavia. A year later, I still don't.
While the "ethnicity estimate" was interesting (if grammatically obnoxious), what I'd really been hoping to discover were living relatives. I wanted to see the faces and learn the names of those with whom I shared an ancestor. I hoped to break down a brick wall or two, to find someone out there who knew about the people I did not. I had some cheesy wish that my DNA would be a puzzle piece that would make the whole picture a little clearer. In this, I have been a bit disappointed thus far. While I do currently have 146 "shared ancestor" matches and over 1000 distant cousins, I have learned very little through any of them. Many have no family tree, and few answer messages - they obviously tested for more personal reasons, or lost interest along the way. I've not broken down any brick walls, nor found relatives from lines I didn't already know a lot about. On the bright side, those who do want to communicate are eager and helpful and as thrilled as I am to find a distant relation. They seem to be doing this for the same reasons I am, and I'm grateful for having discovered them.
Of course, some fault for not finding more sits with me, as well. Learning about genetic genealogy is almost like learning a new language; there are halpogroups and centimorgans and numbered chromosomes and all sorts of other terms to sort through, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it all bit overwhelming. One of my goals for 2018 is to stop procrastinating and actually dig in to what I was so eager to learn, before I actually had to learn it, hopefully leading to a post this time next year in which I share all my new discoveries.
Overall, I have found the genetic genealogy experience fascinating, confusing, exciting, and more work than I'd anticipated. I've learned little, but been greatly inspired to continue searching. I now know that many other parts of Europe are holding secrets to my ancestry that I have yet to uncover. I know a little bit more about how I got here, and am driven to learn even more.
Oh, and that other 6%? Eurasia, Asia, and Spain.
War is, for better or worse, a major part of history, and therefore a significant aspect of our ancestry. Most of us, if we dig deep enough, will find a point at which our family story was altered, somehow, by battle.
In honour of Remembrance Day, I will be posting a series of entries about my own family's military history, beginning with my closest ancestors who served in WWII.
Frederick Norman Harding
1917 - 1971
Fred was my maternal grandfather, though I never met him; he passed away nine years before I was born. Though fiercely devoted to him (her phonebook entry remained "Mrs. Fred Harding" until her move to a care facility), my grandmother is a very private woman, and did not talk about him much, so everything I know about his military service has been pieced together from newspaper articles and documents I have found over the course of my research.
A September, 1943 blurb in the Lethbridge Herald reports his "safe arrival overseas", and states that he had enlisted three months prior, taking his training in Wetaskiwin. He served as a Private with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, and in late September or early October of 1944, was badly wounded on the Dutch border and airlifted to England to recover before coming home to Canada.
A few years later, he would meet my grandmother, and the two would go on to raise four daughters in Lethbridge. Fred passed away in 1971 at the age of 53.
George Alexander Stalker
1904 - 1988
George was my great-grandfather, the father of Fred's wife. Like many others of his era, he did not talk about the war upon returning home, but he did keep many material reminders, including his stripes, pay books, identification card, and military portrait, which I am honoured to now have in my possession, and which give us an idea of his experiences overseas.
He enlisted on June 26, 1940, at the age of 35. He served as a gunner, earning the rank of General, and was likely involved in several intense battles as part of the Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. While it's not known when exactly he returned home, the last pay book in my possession is from late 1944.
George returned home to a four year old daughter he had never met (his wife was four months pregnant when he was deployed), and their seventh and last child was born a couple of years later. He returned to farming, and also managed a United Farmers of Alberta store. I remember him as a kind and energetic man, who took great joy in family celebrations. He passed away in 1988, at the age of 83.
1906 - 1962
Edwin was my paternal grandfather's step-father. The only son* of German immigrants, he was a postal worker and member of the National Guard in Illinois.
At the beginning of the war, Edwin was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 202nd Coast Guard, and was stationed first in Fort Bliss, Texas, then, due to his having been a private pilot, was transferred to the Air Corps, which took him to Missouri, Georgia, and then overseas to the Pacific Theater, where he was promoted to Captain. In my grandfather's own words, "he flew forward artillery and parachute spottings, won the Bronze Star with 4 clusters, the Air Medal with a cluster, was shot down and survived several days in the jungle of Luzon, Philippines. As the war ended, he was flown to a hospital in Japan, where he recovered from severe jungle rot of his legs, (which plagued him for the rest of his life), and was discharged in 1945."
Upon his return home, he continued his military career, training pilots in both the United States and Turkey, becoming among the earliest tactical helicopter pilots, and finally being promoted to Colonel and Commander of the Air Division of the Transportation Corps. A building at the Fort Eustis United States Army instillation is named for him.
My grandfather speaks highly of Edwin, describing him as encouraging, supportive, and kind. He passed away in 1962 and is buried with his wife, my great-grandmother, in Arlington National Cemetery.
*When I first published this piece, I said Edwin was an only child, when he in fact had two sisters. This has been edited for accuracy.