I’ve always known I’m French: my Dad from bilingual Lewiston; Mom from bilingual Westbrook. My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles spoke English except when French kept their secrets from us. My great grandfather, Pierre, spoke only Québécois. I once asked my mother why they named me Susan Jeanne. She said, “we wanted a name that could be said in French.”
Months after spitting into a tube and sending off the package, my DNA panel popped up in my inbox. I scanned: Celtic, Irish, Iberian Peninsula. I held my breath, read on. No French.
“Can’t be,” I thought, staring at my computer screen. “Not possible. They’ve tested the wrong saliva.”
I called the company. A soft-spoken man answered, “May I help you, Mrs. Young?”
“Yes,” I said. “There’s been a mistake. My results show no French. Let me tell you the names of my family members: Roland, Lorraine, Jeanne, Raymond, Albertine, Auguste, Bernadette, Victorine, Lucien, Pierre, Yvonne, Armand. And the last names: Lebel, Albert, Gauvreau, Gagnon, Burgoyne…… »
“Ma’am, ma’am. Enough,” interrupted the nice man. I could almost hear him raising his hand to my face to stop my tirade. “Our results go back 1,000 years. We don’t follow migratory patterns. For an additional fee we can trace them. Do you want us to do that?”
I ranted. “No. I know them. My people emigrated from Normandy in the 1700s to the French-speaking towns of Caraquet, New Brunswick and St. Malo, Quebec.”
“OK, ma’am,” said the man, “It seems we can’t help you.”
Months later, I received an email stating that the science of interpreting DNA results had evolved and improved. They had refined my ethnicity estimates.
The new colorful pie graph showed 93% French. I knew it anyway. We are not only descended from our family names, but from inherited habits, customs; that intergenerational soup recipe, how we do or don’t talk with our hands, the language in which we first learned our prayers.
I am from a long line of nothing-frivolous women. My maternal grandmother, who unnecessarily wore thrift shop clothes, talked little and quieted more after the death from cancer of her forty-four-year-old daughter. She kept her grief in close. We do that in my family. Her daughter, my mother, grew up through the Depression and said, as she coughed and sneezed through colds or spiked a 102- degree fever with the flu, the grippe, “Mothers can’t get sick. I have no time to lay around.”
My bloodline says, “I’m fine. No, I don’t need help. Thanks for offering.”
When I surrender to bed after a stressful day, I place my lavender-scented eye pillow on my furrowed brow and listen for the echoes of my ancestors. The whispers of my mom and her mom inspire me. Both dead now, their legacies breathe their lives into mine. I hear what they often said to me, “In troubled times and illness, women are strong.”
With a soft gaze in the mirror, I see my genetic blueprint, thin eyelashes and crinkly wrinkles around my eyes, the same as on the strong faces of my stoic mother and grandmother. I also see in me the curiosity and lifelong learner that was Dad and the devilish grins of my two grandfathers.
What lives in us includes and is so much greater than only our DNA reports. With exceptions of course, if we pay attention to how we walk, talk, eat, work, play and love, I bet most of us know who we are.