Teri Orr: 23andMe dispels generational lore but reveals new branches on the family tree
Despite family lore and stories retold in whispers, my direct ancestors — who all settled in various parts of the West in the mid-1800s — include no actual factual Native Americans.
So like Elizabeth Warren before me — after spitting into a plastic tube and sending it — to god knows who or where — I am deeply saddened to learn I am — in no possible way — part Cherokee or Navajo or Ute princess. In fact, my DNA shows me to be the very whitest of white girls. And the origin of those twisted rope results show me to have all my direct spit sisters beginning somewhere in the British Isles.
The Wallace branch of my deep-rooted tree is pretty easy to trace to Scotland and the Orr family is Irish and now there is a whole lot of British blood that in no way was ever conveyed to me as a thing.
I avoided this discovery for years. I listened to friends as they reported results and unexpected discoveries, then communication with newfound relatives around the globe. It all sounded exhausting — so many people to communicate with — wonder about rare diseases with — try and figure out why they left the old country and came to this one.
But for almost a year now I have been involved in conference plans to be in Scotland this summer — so I added Ireland and England. I have never been to two of the three countries. At 16 — I did the classic teenage rite of passage — see 10 countries in 14 days trip — with my school. I had seen London then — for a minute — all filled with kohl-ringed big-eyed skinny Twiggy girls. Home to the Beatles. I remember little of that trip except being smitten with the scenery from Italy to France and the ability to be served wine at that tender age … and Maggie. Maggie was a year older than me — a beautiful sassy girl who decided taking touristy photos was for suckers. She would remember her trip by spitting off of every major attraction we saw. Notre Dame, a balcony across from the tower of Pisa, from the turret of a stone castle in England. I found her behavior uncouth, shocking and secretly exhilarating. Mind you she never spat at a person or on any actual building — just near them — or in honor somehow of them.
One warm summer day in Italy after a long lazy lunch we wandered through a village — the girls — talking about wedding dresses we hoped to wear when the The Big Day arrived. Again — this was the ’60s. Weddings were still the predictable step after the prom dress. We had seen lace factories in Belgium — such beautiful delicate work. It influenced the beautiful lace veil I wore just two years later at my wedding. Maggie was having none of it. She would be married in red velvet no matter the season or location or man. There would be a horseback entrance involved — she said. And then added without additional commentary — there was no one to give her away anyway. I was shocked at the radicalness of it all. And also secretly attracted by the idea of blowing up norms.
But I was such a good girl — then. Told I came from good stock. Hardworking. And some of that was true. My family history mysteries are all tangled up in my parents’ other marriages and their absolute lack of relatives. Both my mother and father were only children. That left me with zero aunts or uncles or cousins. My half-sister from my mother’s first marriage lived with us and was eight years older than me. My father’s first child — also a daughter — was about eight years older too. I only saw her once as a child.
Now through the magic of algorithms and modern science and the strange internet fabric ancestry.com — it turns out I have second and third cousins all over the place. In Kansas and Ohio and Edinburgh and Dublin and San Francisco — around where it all started on my father’s side of the family.
Probably around 1870 my great grandfather came over from Ireland in the time of the second potato famine. It was before Ellis Island was established so there are no good records. Legend has it he tried finding work on the East Coast but all those immigrants seeking work and a new life numbered thousands. In the storefront windows were the letters — N-I-N-A — No Irish Need Apply. He eventually became a cop on the tough Barbary Coast in San Francisco. My grandfather, his son Bill, was born in 1887. In 1913 and 1914 Bill played shortstop for the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. He was part of Connie Mack’s famed $100,000 infield. As my son likes to point out — he had a terrible batting record. As I like to point out — he played in two World Series games — which we have not. He met my grandmother here, in Salt Lake City where the team came for spring training. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Utah with a teaching degree. I knew none of this Utah piece growing up. Her father had come — I think — from Ohio to be a circuit court judge here. Which meant you rode horseback on a circuit to try cases with lawyers in remote places. His wife, Minnie, also I think from Ohio, was reportedly friends with one of Brigham Young’s wives. Those great grandparents were Catholics in Utah in the 1870s.
The rabbit hole can get pretty deep, when you shake all the leaves, on the branches on the trees. It is a strange time in life to learn lifelong beliefs were terribly wrong and there are people who share stories based on our shared spit. Maybe Maggie was a savant … which I need to reconsider all the days ahead — starting Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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