how my ancestry makes me a better writer

I received an email from my half-sister who forwarded an email she received from a man neither of us knew. He had said that we were related in the Chadwick tree limbs of cousins and that he would add me as a guest on Ancestry so I could view his tree of which he had meticulously completed. This prompted me to think about my family tree that I had started, once, on Ancestry, but stopped with my investigation at my paternal grandparents because of the many first names of “Thomas,” beginning with my father, on up.

However, I could move up my maternal side of the tree because I was familiar with my aunts and uncles. There were seven in the Lesczyinski family, but then coming to the United States and Lescyzinski was too much, and so Lesner was created which became tracing confusion and also my grandmother marrying an Olszewski.

I abandoned climbing my tree for my DNA story and the maps that Ancestry provided. My maternal Polish lineage traced to northwest Poland in Pomerania, which lies on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. The only Pomerania(n) I know is Big Gus up the street, my neighbor’s dog, small but mighty. My paternal side DNA comes from England and northwestern Europe, at least fifteen percent, to the Channel Islands. Bits of my ancestry are scattered in Germany, the Netherlands, with iotas of Swedish, Danish, and Scottish and a scant three percent of Welsh.

It was a lot of information to take in, a dizzying array of names of forbearers, where they lived, and the history of their land, going back to the seventeen hundreds, to obscure places I’ve never heard of. I retreated knowing that I would return to learn more about my ancestry.

The pull to know more about the Chadwick lineage brought me back to my tree. Each question I solicited was a quest for a connection with them. A while back I wrote, “What’s in a Surname, anyway?” I held hope that my surname could have a trickle of royal blood running down from the lines and into my spirit. According to Wikipedia, Chadwick is an Old English surname meaning “town or village of Chad.” The name comes from the parish of Rochdale (a town center in Manchester, England) where the family received land by William the Conqueror. Sixty notable Chadwicks included politicians, footballers, a Canadian criminal, a composer, guitarist and singer, a physicist who won a Nobel Prize, and even a screenwriter and author.

I thought about why my attention had been so focused on learning about people I didn’t know. My parents are gone now, and it’s a feeling like being an orphan where you understand you do have parents, but no longer feel a sense of connection. I can’t help but to reach out, digging into the past—where their history came from, who they were, what they did. Would I ever know of the trials my ancestors overcame, their accomplishments, and the dreams they had? In my parent’s absesence, a link to access family stories, or to the answer to what my godmother’s Christian name is has been lost. My identity feels diluted.

Tracing my lineage is reaching for lines of belonging where the connections weren’t just limbs of a tree, but roads leading me to discover places I neither heard of, nor knew where they were on a map. I didn’t know of the Pomeranian Islands or what regions are in western England. How American I am yet threaded with European DNA.

My writerly self has learned from my ancestry tree and DNA about searching for clarity and sense of self. I am more steadfast with my writing to seek the nugget of gold, digging deep to find my own way and to discover what really matters. My ten-year affair with writing my memoir about discovering connections and finding home can attest to this.

By plugging names into my family tree, studying the maps of where my ancestors once came, and considering the occupations of those with my surname fostered connections to the past, and brought them forward. I have brought them to life.

After my parents had dropped me, a freshman at Marquette University, off in my dorm lobby, I felt as if a fish upstream as tenants poured in. I stepped aside of the flow and glanced at an oversized map of the U.S. hanging on the wall near the elevators. Pins were stuck in various places on the map, some in cities, others outside, and one or two outside the U.S. We were asked to show where we came from using a pin placed on the map.

We all came from somewhere, the east coast and out west, and many points in between. The pins told me so. Like pins on a map, our DNA pinpoints just how far back we have traveled to get to where we are now.

And there’s no stronger pull to move forward in discovering my ancestry, as a descendent, and as a writer, than tracing points made in the past to connecting to the present.