You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Your family is your very best genealogy resource, in many ways.

comet

With the holidays approaching, this is the perfect time to talk to your family about family history. Often, we think about family history in the sense of genealogy, meaning names, birth dates and death dates. But there is more to the story – a lot more. Or maybe better said, there are many stories to flesh out your genealogy.

It’s those stories that you want to hear and the holidays when family is gathered provide perfect opportunities. You just have to get the ball rolling!

I discovered over the years that people react better to questions that are open ended and encourage them, and others in the room, to talk and reminisce.

Questions I asked my mother that produced very interesting answers were questions like:

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your lifetime?

For mother, it was electricity in her home. It had never occurred to me that she had lived in a home without electricity before that conversation. The discussion then progressed to things like, “how did you preserve food without electricity,” “how did you have light in the evenings,” and “how did your parents heat the house,” especially since I don’t remember a fireplace in my grandmother’s home. The discussions that followed were very interesting and would never have happened without that single topic-opening question.

For example, I learned that the bedrooms weren’t heated, and the “bathroom” didn’t need to be heated since it was the outhouse.  That means bathing was with a cloth out of a wash basin or tub with water heated on the wood stove.

Another question that might produce some wonderful stories is to ask about “once in a lifetime events.”

My mother recalled a family trip to the 1933 World’s Fair in an old Model T Ford to see her grandmother, Nora Kirsch Lore McCormick’s quilt displayed in the Sears Pavilion.

nora-1933-quilt

In my case, one of those (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime events forever seared in my memory is the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado which cut a wide and devastating swath through central Indiana.  I didn’t realize what I was seeing, but I saw that tornado move across the southern part of the city where I lived.  A tree fell on the house and in an instant my mother grabbed me and we ran for the basement – her half dragging me all the way.

Another time, Mother, my daughter and I were in a van in Illinois one beastly hot June day and after watching a wall cloud overtake us, a tornado picked the van up and moved it some 20-30 feet off the road, sitting it back down right side up, amazingly enough. We were all fine that day, albeit terrified, but others weren’t so lucky.

Another very memorable and somewhat surreal event, as an adult, was unexpectedly seeing the Hale-Bopp Comet from an airplane.

A humorous episode occurred when mother’s uncle died in the middle of a paralyzing blizzard and they put his body in my grandfather’s garage. That was the family joke for years, ribbing my grandfather, but what else were they going to do?

“Remember when” stories like these may never surface if you don’t prompt with questions – and the answers in terms of your family and also in terms of what was happening in society – like radio, TV, electricity and the space race – at that time in history are all part of your family story. Those things would clearly have affected everyone one way or another but the personal stories of how they directly affected people in your family will never emerge unless you ask those leading questions – and record them for posterity.

DNA

Of course, it goes without saying that you might want to take some DNA kits along to family gatherings, just in case.  I always have a swab kit in my purse or in the car, or both.

Your family is also your best resource for genetic genealogy as well. Different family members can provide haplogroup information for ancestors whose haplogroups you don’t carry.

Family members often can and will gladly provide this genetic information for the family, but they don’t realize they carry these genealogy gems, gifts directly from the ancestors passed down the direct paternal and direct matrilineal lines. For example, your father and his siblings can provide the mitochondrial haplogroup of your paternal grandmother (red circles on the chart below), something you don’t carry.  Of course, the blue squares on the chart below represent the direct patrilineal line for males which is both the path of the Y chromosome and the traditional way surnames are inherited.  Your father will carry the family surname and Y DNA, but your mother’s father or brothers will carry the Y of her birth surname.  There’s lots to be discovered!

DNA Pedigree

If you’d like to see an example of how to build a DNA pedigree chart, above, by collecting the haplogroup information from all of your ancestral lines, click here.

Let’s face it, both Y and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups are the only direct line periscope we have back in time more than the few generations provided by autosomal testing. Autosomal DNA is divided in half in each generation, but Y and mitochondrial DNA is not, and is passed intact, except for mutations that might occur, generation to generation – making Y and mtDNA extremely valuable resources to the genealogist.

Haplogroups, discovered through Y and mitochondrial DNA testing, are invaluable historical resources revealing your deep ancestry and not utilized nearly enough. We simply don’t know what we don’t know and testing the right people is the only way to find out.

In terms of autosomal DNA testing, anyone that is a third cousin or closer is used in Family Tree DNA’s phased family matching to indicate which side of your family your matches originate from, as shown by the little blue male, pink female and purple “both” icons shown beside matches, below.

Phased FF2

The only way to divide your matches into maternal and paternal sides, without both parents, is by testing other relatives.  If you’re lucky enough to have both parents, that’s wonderful, but the only way to divide your parents’ results is by testing other relatives as well.

Right now, you can purchase the DNA kits on sale and save them until you need them. You can fill in the name of the tester when you determine who is going to take the test, but be sure to let Family Tree DNA know the correct gender at the time the test is submitted if it is different than the gender indicated when you purchased the kit. The actual swab kit is the same for both genders, but gender verification is part of quality assurance for the various tests.  Listing the wrong gender will delay your test results – and no one wants that!

When I find a willing candidate, I have them swab right then and there, on the spot, and I mail the kit back to Family Tree DNA myself. That way, I know the swabbing gets done and the kit doesn’t take up residence in their junk drawer or under the front seat of the car forever!  In one case, family members found a used swab kit in the glove box three years later, after the person died – and amazingly – it was still good!  However, mailing the kit back yourself avoids these situations.

Enjoy your holidays, take DNA kits along, and ask leading questions. You don’t know what you don’t know and you’ll never find out if you don’t ask those questions and DNA test your relatives.

18 thoughts on “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

  1. I have seen you mention taking “kits” with you to family gatherings and have family members swab cheeks then and there. Do you get a huge discount on these kits because you write for Family Finder or one of the other companies? I don’t want to be disrespectful but don’t see how the average person, like me, could afford this.

    • No, I pay the same price as everyone else. I order them one or two at a time when they are on sale and I replace them as I use them. I’ve been doing this for 15 or 16 years now, so the cost spread over time it’s any more than a subscription to a magazine or a genealogy book would be…and a whole lot less than a trip out of state to a courthouse. Most of my living relatives who are willing to test already have and I’m incredibly glad I tested several who have passed on now.

      • Thank you, Roberta, for your gracious answer. Your explanation made me feel better about possibility of my doing the same thing. I follow your blog religiously and you have helped me understand DNA in all its complexities.

      • Now most of the people I test are people whose Y and mtDNA represent my untested lines. I don’t find them very often, but am very grateful when I do. And you are most welcome.

  2. Hi,

    You mentioned you always take a swab kit along – do these allow for testing of babies? I’ve used 23andme, but they don’t provide swabs, you have to spit, and so it’s hard to get enough saliva for babies.

      • Thanks Roberta.

        Is FTdna the only company that offers the swab kits? If so, do you know of any way to cover FTdna data to 23andme? I only ask because most people I know who use a site like this are on 23andme, and I have many closer genetic relatives on 23andme in comparison with FTdna, where the closest relative is actually quite distant.

      • How about using the swab kit to send a sample to 23andme? What kind of swab do they provide? Is it something you could buy in a pharmacy?

    • Thanks again Roberta.

      Do you think using a ‘bring your own’ swab with the 23andme kit would actually work? i.e, swabing the inside of a babies mouth and putting the saliva in the 23andme tube?

    • I have a distant memory of reading that 23andMe would provide a swab kit, in the form of a sponge end to the swab. This was for people who had issues providing saliva for the usual spit kit. You might try contacting them to see if this is offered.

  3. Nice blog as usual. I suspect that you didn’t see Halley’s Comet from an airplane. It was very difficult to see in April 1986. It was pretty much a bust as far as the public seeing it with the naked eye. On the other hand, comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 was very bright and large (as big as the full moon) in the sky for several months in Feb. to May in1997. So it would have been a beautiful sight from an airplane.
    David Pitts

    • You’re right. It was Hale-Bopp. Same trip that I broke my ankle. Funny the way we remember things together in our minds. I vividly remember the comet on the way out but the trip back is just a blur of a cast, crutches and pain meds.

  4. I was visiting with my 1st cousin for the first time in maybe 40 years and I gave her a pedigree chart based on my main tree. She said, I have something you may be interested in as the only person in the family doing any genealogy. After she rooted around in her garage for a while I got a 550 page book on my grandmother’s family (Morrow with Morton Peden, Wallace, White), that appeared to have never been opened, and it even had me in it! It saved me a LOT of work and had lots of stories I had never heard before!

    Having a Big Y test being run right now. Not many of us R-P25 folks in the various projects, much less related. Maybe this test will help!

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