There’s a story on my mom’s side of the family about my great-grandfather. He and his brother left Ireland together. One brother went to Australia, and my great-grandfather started his life in New York City; they never saw each other again. My great-grandfather was an alcoholic who worked as a trolley driver and died young. I have to fill in the rest. What he fled from, what he left behind, what he hoped to find.

“Maybe it’s true that we are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.”

–John Steinbeck, East of Eden

My family talked a lot about being Irish. It was the answer I received to a lot of the “why” questions I posed: “Why do we have freckles?” Because we’re Irish. “Why are we obnoxious drunks?” Because we’re Irish. Once, I asked my mom if she thought we could bring a dying plant back to life.

“Of course! We’re Irishwomen, Shea, our hands were meant to be in the earth. We’re farmers—unless we’ve had too much whiskey, then we’re intellectuals.”

I believed her. And when I traveled to Ireland, I said, “I’m Irish.”

I was schooled pretty quickly. Apparently, American tourists calling themselves Irish when they’ve taken a car ride around the island does not a countryman make. Although I did have a shining moment happen outside of a pub in Galway. The man working the door looked at my freckled face and said, “you could have been one of us.” It was all I needed to hear.

I knew more about my mom’s side than my dad’s. My dad’s side of the family had been in America longer. I heard we were Scottish. But we knew so little about our history, there had to be some surprises. When I found out about 23andme, I was curious. You spit in a tube, send it to a lab, and months later you get an email saying you’ve received your DNA results.

So, I sent it in, and I convinced Chris to do it too.

Because we don’t share the same father, we could clearly see where our mom’s makeup ended and our father’s began. Boy, could we:


There I am, 94.1% British and Irish. And here’s Chris, like a bird of paradise.

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