‘Are you sitting down?’ the ominous words came down the phone line. Usually, that means something less than happy is about to be imparted. ‘It’s about your grandparents ….’
I grew up in the sunshine capital of Aotearoa New Zealand. My maternal grandparents lived just down the road. My grandfather was always a big part of my life. When not working in his immaculate garden that had featured on Maggie Barry’s Garden Show, he would be pottering around ours. ‘Escaping Grandma’, he would joke. In his workshop (one that would put Father Christmas to shame), he built us the wooden toys my own kids still play with and helped me refurbish my centreboard yacht. Grandpa’s steamed fruit pudding was always a firm favourite and something we, as his grandchildren, have been trying to recreate ever since. He was the best grandfather a kid could have, and the type of grandpa I want for my kids, especially given my own Dad’s early death when I was thirteen.
Grandma, on the other hand, was a whole different kettle of fish. If you ever saw the Gilmore Girls, my grandma was a good copy of Emily Gilmore – maybe not in social status (though she aspired to be) but in everything else. Prim, proper, no-nonsense, and somewhat distant was how she often appeared. ‘No elbows on the table’, she would say, ‘You might have dinner with Prince Philip one day’. She was forever wanting to fix what she called my ‘cack-handedness’. Introducing girlfriends to Grandma was never done without considerable thought and always with others around – safety in numbers was how we saw it. There was absolutely nothing or no one she didn’t know, thanks to a huge network of little birds in her Country Women’s Institute branch.
Let’s rewind to that phone call: ‘Are you sitting down?’ I still remember the day vividly. I had just finished updating my third-year undergraduate genetics lectures on ancestry DNA testing. Such testing has become increasingly popular. I teach my students the theory and science behind it, how to interpret the results, what’s hype versus substance, and what one needs to be aware of before taking a test. In other words, if your family has skeletons in its closet, ancestry DNA testing will bring them to light. Unfortunately, those skeletons don’t disintegrate like vampires exposed to sunlight – they just get worse in the cold light of day.
My mum is a family history buff. She knows the family tree backwards, forwards, and side-to-side, and sees ancestry DNA tests as just another tool in the genealogical toolbox when investigating one’s whakapapa. That’s what led to her phone call. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘the results say your Grandpa is not genetically your grandfather; rather his first cousin is’. I distinctly remember laughing at that point; it brought new meaning to the phrase keeping it in the family. Then my scientist mind kicked in, asking lots of questions and double-checking the results until I was happy they were correct. I even went to Ancestry and got my own DNA tested. No mistake. The amounts of shared DNA (centimorgans) between myself and my uncles did not match what was expected based on my family tree.
And then I laughed even more. Why? The absolute irony of the situation, given what I teach, and because my very prim and proper Emily Gilmore of a grandmother was not so prim and proper after all. When I told my students, they laughed too, saying that they never thought it would be their lecturer who had the dark family secret.
So how does all this work in my family? My grandparents had four kids, my mum, and her three brothers. While Ancestry DNA tests showed my whakapapa through Grandma’s side of the family matched what we already knew, it was a different story on Grandpa’s side; slightly different rather than radically different. Yes, I’m still descended from that Scottish outlaw and cattle rustler, Rob Roy MacGregor. What’s different is my more recent whakapapa. Of my three uncles, the oldest biologically belongs to my grandparents; the second has yet to test. My mother and her youngest brother (just 18 months apart) both share a different biological father, who was, in fact, a cousin to my grandfather. Now that makes for some complicated DNA, and for some complicated family relationships. If Mum had not known her family tree so well, she may not have had the knowledge to unravel who belonged to whom. And who knows what other skeletons may creep out of that closet.
At this point in the story, it’s worth pointing out that ancestry DNA can only tell us the who, such as genetic relationships; it cannot tell us the why. In my experience, it’s the why, not the who, that tears families apart because the why leads us into the realms of speculation. People agonise, as do some of my own family members, over the why. Was it consensual, was there a difference in perceived power or status levels, was it an ongoing relationship, and did the spouses know?
In our case, we need to look into my family history, and then to interpret it in light of the DNA results, especially given that all the participating parties have passed away.
My grandparents married in the late 1940s. Mum’s oldest brother, my immensely cheeky uncle, is biologically theirs, and looks to have been conceived shortly after they met. By the 1950s, my grandparents had moved to a small, remote works village that serviced the building of a hydro dam. Their second child, my one uncle yet to be tested, was conceived around the time of this move.
During the week, Grandpa worked at the hydro dam, returning home at weekends, while Grandma (a city girl at heart) learned to stay at home, run the house, and look after the kids. There were no shops and urban amusements here, just the need for self-sufficiency in seriously rural Aotearoa. A few doors down lived Grandpa’s cousin, who, being more senior in the works hierarchy, got to come home every night. He regularly ‘checked up’ on Grandma to see that she was coping. For my mum and her baby brother, the rest is history. To cut a long story short, based on the DNA, family memories, benefit of hindsight surrounding family events and historical records, it seems that Grandma and her bit on the side had a long-running affair that lasted for at least 15 years, even after my grandparents moved to another part of New Zealand.
Did Grandpa know? I think it’s almost certain that he did – kudos to him for sticking around and raising all four kids, so that a generation or two later, he could be such a fantastic Grandpa to me and a great grandfather to my sons.
While all this has come as a shock to some in the extended family, it does explain some of the family history stories Mum has told me. But some family members appear to blame Mum for taking the test and opening previously-unknown wounds. Skeletons have a way of coming out, regardless of who tests in a family. Only one or two extended family members need to take the test and the genetic anonymity of the whole family is lost. That’s how police caught the alleged Golden State serial killer.
So what was my biological grandfather like? My memories of him are pretty vague and quite ethereal, having only met him once or twice when I was young, either at his home or the local pub. By all accounts, he was (and still is, even years after his death) regarded as a well-respected pillar of a small community. However, behind that so-called respectability (and in another case of sheer irony) he was known as a player. One of the happier outcomes of Mum’s Ancestry DNA test is finding a half-sibling who lives in outback Australia and is also the product of another extra-marital liaison. My Mum and her younger brother have already visited my new Aussie aunt. This unexpected kinship has helped to negate the negative responses from most of my biological grandfather’s legitimate family, and some of my own, who appear to wish this embarrassment would all just go away by sinking into oblivion.
While it weirds me out a bit that my Grandpa is not my biological grandfather, it doesn’t bother me. If I had known the biological imposter better, it might be different. But my sense of family, community, and belonging is tied to my Grandpa. For the first time, I can rightfully and heart-warmingly say from my own experience that one’s sense of belonging is arguably more important than strings of DNA code. It is not my DNA that has given me memories of playing in Grandpa’s garden or of being sent his steamed pudding at university in his version of a Red Cross package. He gave me those memories and that’s the way it should be.
So here’s to my Grandpa, the best a kid could ask for.