In a few weeks, my sister, brother-in-law, husband and I will be a bit more equipped to explain who we are – part of our quiet, at-home New Year’s Eve celebration was ordering our 23andMe personal genome kits, which promise to help you “discover your ancestral origins and lineage with a personalized analysis of your DNA.”
They arrived yesterday – I did mine today and will mail it in tomorrow.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while – but here’s what led up to it actually happening.
Shortly before Christmas, I popped in to beautiful Curran Hall, a restored antebellum home that serves as Little Rock’s official visitor’s center, to check out our ESSE Purse Museum display and visit with my friend Shalah. The weather was horrid, cold and sleety, but Shalah and I had a lovely time, actually sitting in the armchairs and talking like proper ladies.
Our conversation quickly turned to books – I told her about just finishing Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, which Shalah now wants to read, and she told me about a book she’d read about assassinated president James Garfield. (I held out for a while but have ordered a used copy from a Goodwill.)
Turns out we’d both developed a very retroactive semi-crush on old Garfield, who was not only an obsessive reader himself, but an unabashed Jane Austen fan in the days of manly men and rough-riders. Go figure.
Anyway, as the conversation meandereed, Shalah told me a fascinating story about a group of people she’d seen a PBS show about, the Melungeons (“rhymes with dungeon,” she said) of Appalachia – “tri-racial isolates” (as in a mixture of white, black and Native American) who were pushed into the hills and not allowed to marry outside their race OR multi-racial people who preceded the settling of Jamestown and have possible Portuguese, Moorish or Turkish ancestry.
Some of them have six fingers on one or both hands and occasionally an extra toe.
I know this because I’ve developed a mild obsession with Melungeons and have spent too much time on Internet research – and read Lisa Alther’s interesting, informative and, at times, hysterical, account of her own quest to uncover her family’s Melungeon heritage.
Alther is a writer par exellence – she’s written many novels, but Kinfolks, her first nonfiction book, would be hard to beat.
(I’ve also ordered a used copy of her first novel, Kinflicks, from a charitable organization – I try to do good while feeding my habit when I can. I’ll let you know but expect it to be fab.)
You can find lots of books about Melungeons, but I highly recommend this one, if you’re interested.
I’d been telling my friend Julia, who has read Kinflicks, about Kinfolks – and cracking John up by laughing until I cried while reading it (an inherited trait I got mostly from Daddy, though Mother does it too).
By the way, obsessive research is an inherited trait in my family, too – both my kids got it, Liz probably worse than Ben, and I suspect, had he not died before the Internet came about, Daddy would have shared it as well. We also notice coincidences – I think that comes more from Mother.
Anyway, the coincidences that came up while I was reading the book are too many to list – as in having a conversation during the day and reading something about it that evening.
And discovering that “Black Dutch,” a phrase my kids’ paternal grandmother used in reference to her family is sometimes another term for Melungeon.
And reading that Elvis possibly had Melungeon blood – we’re definitely related to the King through the Tackett (Mother’s) side, and the Tacketts descended from an indentured servant from France who landed in Appalachia after working off his indenture.
I could go on and on but I’ll stop. Except for this: The Saturday after Christmas, as we were spending the evening with Julia and Rich, we discussed Melungeons and the likelihood that Cathy and I could be part Melungeon – and Rich told us he’d just gotten back his 23andMe results.
Rich is an extremely bright, technologically savvy guy (even if his results show he is 3 percent Neanderthal – kidding, because how cool is that??), and if he trusts the results, that’s good enough for me.
Mother always said we were “Heinz 57” on her side – too many backgrounds to know – or a “Duke’s Mixture.” Until today, I never knew what the second term meant, but turns out it was a cheap mix of tobacco scraps sold by, wait for it, an Appalachian farmer after the Civil War.
The hardest part about the test was mustering up enough spit to fill the test tube – nice Southern girls are taught not to spit, and it took me more than the five minutes the kit said it might take. Finally John suggested sniffing chocolate to get the juices flowing, and a dark chocolate truffle (which I promptly ate after hitting the spit fill line) did help a bit.
Now we mail our kits tomorrow (John’s doing his in the morning) and wait. That will actually be the hardest part. It always is.
I’ll let you know, of course.