When I began researching my ancestry a few years ago, I was curious, then astonished. Digging into generations of family history led to many discoveries, including nine Mayflower great-grandparents on my mother’s side. I took a DNA test, then another, and uncovered more surprises — Italian blood, for one, and connections with Syrian and Lebanese relatives on my father’s side.
My grandfather Elias Assad Boulous (Boulous is Arabic for Paul, my surname) and his parents came to the United States in the early 1900s from Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate, a mountainous region that was at the time, part of the Ottoman Empire. Their departure was timely; just a few years later, between 1915 and 1918, the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon wiped out 200,000 people — half the country’s people and World War I’s highest fatality rate by population. That gut-wrenching tragedy and subsequent wars are probably why tracing my paternal roots has been so difficult, and why those DNA results have been so precious.
My great-grandmother’s maiden name “Howiak,” or “Howayek,” aligns with numerous relatives in a region of the same name, and I’ve connected with both Boulous and Howiak cousins on these DNA sites.
My mother’s side of the family, in contrast, is deeply rooted in New England, complete with accused Salem “witches” (Mary Tyler Lovett, an 8th great-grandmother and her daughter, Johanna), an evil witch trial accuser (Job Tyler, a 9th great-grandfather), soldiers representing every war fought in this country, and one very brave woman, 7th great-grandmother Susanna Eastman Wood Swan, who protected her 1700s family cabin by driving a cooking spit through an attacker during the American Indian Wars.
Mom’s side of the family liked to write — they documented everything. Great-great-grandfather Nelson Byron Vars started tracing the family history in the 1880s and great-uncle Harold finished it, publishing just 100 copies of a book that covers the Vars line from 1208 France to 1976 New England. My sister Carolyn tracked down a rare copy in my mother’s things and was kind enough to give it to me for safekeeping. What a treasure!
I could go on about all my findings. As anyone who’s investigated their own family trees will tell you, the amount of data out there is enormous. The research, though, is tedious, because among all the information is lots of misinformation, so records such as birth, death, and marriage certificates, draft cards, and other credible sources are critical to proving one’s lineage. Again, this is where DNA is so precious — and far less disputable than written accounts.
Since these tests became popular — and more populated — I’ve had many pleasant surprises: connections with long lost first cousins, second cousins, and relatives who offer clues to my Middle Eastern roots. Uncovering the secrets of my genetic past has been an exciting journey, and I never considered that not everyone wants their secrets revealed. That changed when friends told me stories about some of their own DNA “surprises.”
One friend, for example, was contacted by a man who had discovered several close relatives — including my friend, who DNA tests showed to be the man’s uncle! Numerous email exchanges sorted it all out: my friend’s brother had a son he didn’t know about. You would think this would be splendid news, but the brother dismissed the facts and refused to recognize the man as his child. I won’t get into all the touchy details, but use your imagination: a married man, a fling, a child. I’m sure it happens more often than any of us can imagine. Other stories have come to me in the past year, most similar to this one, but thankfully not all with the same outcomes. Parents usually want to know who their kids are, regardless of the circumstances.
Despite how common instances like this seem, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, if we had been told 50 years ago that within our lifetime tests would be available to anyone with about a hundred bucks that could show us who our relatives were, we might have dismissed it as folly, sorcery … even witchcraft.
My own little ancestry reports and DNA results have been — at least for the last 100 years — free of drama. Until this past week, when I received a note from a cousin I had never heard of. She was adopted, she said, and trying to track down her father. “Does this name sound familiar?” she wanted to know. It did — very familiar. Not only that, but looking at our trees side by side, everything fit: the ages, connections, and who she would be to me in the family tree, which was exactly what I saw in the DNA report.
However, the facts of her life didn’t mesh with what I knew of whom I believe to be her father. She had been basically abandoned. There was more, and it was painful to read. This woman, my cousin, wasn’t trying to track the man down to confront him or even find out the details of her young life. She had children of her own now, and there were medical issues — serious issues, and no family history to look to. “Could I,” she wanted to know, “ask around and see if anyone in my family suffered from leukemia, autism…”
This story doesn’t have a tidy ending. Families are messy. Pasts are messy. Lifetimes can be very, very messy. While it’s not my right to disclose other people’s secrets, I can’t ignore the choices of my family, either, especially when they impact the living. So I’m wading through this quandary, weighing the information I provide while doing my best to do right by this new relative. Maybe this DNA result, initially marked by sadness, will yield some positive results.
And while I joyfully uncover secrets from my family, reveling in the proud history of past generations, I’ll be more mindful of and humbled by these other stories, not all of which are cause for celebration in the light of truth.
Susan Joy Paul is an author, editor, and freelance writer. She has lived on Colorado Springs’ northwest side for more than 20 years. Contact Susan at email@example.com.