I grew up listening to tall tales about ancestors from distant lands. So when I had the opportunity to take a DNA test, I took it.

By Sarah Cottrell
August 20, 2018
Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

Like millions of other people, I'm deeply interested in my roots. I grew up in a single parent home listening to tall tales about ancestors from distant lands. So when I had the opportunity to take a DNA test, I took it. 

My father, who I never knew and who died many years ago, lingers in my family stories like a ghost. I was told about how his father and grandparents escaped Nazi Germany and immigrated to Boston where my grandfather worked as a pastry chef. My aunts and uncles would tell me about how three members of my father’s family were killed in the war. That names were changed in order to assimilate. That I should be proud of my German heritage and that by blood I hold Jewish ancestry.

Stories of ancestors living a life so different from my rural Maine existence didn’t end with my father’s family. In fact, my mother’s family has long talked about distant relatives marrying and having children with Native American women before our state entered the Union. Was I part Native American, too? 

There was the war nurse who mended an Italian soldier and they fell in love and had a baby out of wedlock. Stories of weird illness and hauntings. One aunt, on my father’s side, apparently turned to stone, which turned out to be an exceedingly rare genetic fluke. On another branch of my family tree, I am told, is a woman who was a world-renowned historian and two cousins over from her, I am related to a pirate who pillaged distant lands and likely fathered countless illegitimate children. How much of any of this could be true?

After spitting into a tube, filling out a quick form, and sending my package off into the ether, I couldn’t help but wonder what my results would reveal. Would I finally see the Jewish roots that I have wondered about since childhood? Would I discover that I am related to royalty? Which relative did I get this honker of a nose from? 

But when the results finally showed up in the mail, I was stunned by what they revealed.

Hearing powerful and incredibly entertaining stories about my family history have shaped and molded my identity growing up in ways that I didn’t fully understand until the DNA test results arrived and I discovered that I have strong Irish and Swedish roots. I am not even a little bit Jewish. Or royalty for that matter. 

I was shocked. There is nothing about the way I look—dark brown, almond-shaped eyes, nearly black hair, and prominent nose—that suggests Irish and Swedish heritage. 

For weeks I mourned the loss of feeling tied to family lore about immigrating family members, pirates, and turning to stone. Those tales, though warped from being retold so many times, were all I had for a record of where I came from and losing the sense that they could be genuinely true hurt my heart in a physical way.

But where I felt loss, I also found a sense of excitement that I now have tangible evidence of who I am. I have living relatives in my new-found homelands and I am diving into new languages and customs that I never in a hundred years of tracing family origins would have guessed to be mine.

Taking a DNA test to find out the science of my own truth was meant to be a fun gamble on silly legends. In the process, I learned to appreciate that my family's colorful storytelling has given me grounding and identity, even if what I learned to be true didn't match the tales I heard growing up. It ultimately doesn't matter that I am not related to pirates or that my blood runs emerald green and with some echoes of Nordic pride. What matters is that my family has stories they believe in with all their heart and I am proud to be a part of that tradition.