For my birthday at the end of last year I was gifted one of those ancestry DNA set things where you send a tube of your spit off to a lab somewhere and they give you a map of ancestral sexual encounters.
I’ve wanted to have a go on one of these things for a while now because my ancestry is a strange sort of mystery to me.
I’ve previously explored by family tree and traced it back five or so generations through Scotland and the North East of England. My Dad’s parents, who live in Sunderland, are very interested in all that kind of stuff and the family tree that my grandmother has built up is incredibly detailed.
I looked through all that she’d researched a few years back and it really meant a lot to me. I found out all sorts of strange things, my favourite one being that there is a direct paternal line (on my mother’s side of the family) between her father and Captain John Humble, the captain of the SS Forfarshire, the wreckage of which made Grace Darling a Victorian heroine that we learnt about in school.
But the more I found out, the more unsettled I became. As much as I wanted it to be, this history wasn’t mine. Not really.
I’ve known for my entire life that I’m adopted. My adoptive mother was a social worker and worked with a lot of vulnerable kids in the care system so she made a point of making sure I always knew and understood what it meant to be adopted. Because she’d brought me up that way I was always really open about it but, late into primary school, it became a thing that I was bullied about and, since then, my relationship to my situation changed.
As a teenage, I struggled more and more with this knowledge and it is undoubtedly at the heart of a lot of my depressive neuroses and feelings of worthlessness. The implied rejection and feeling of being adrift in the world inherent to the adoptive experience would be a good Depression Starter Kit in most people’s hands and, in more recent years, since my adoptive family imploded around 2013, these feelings have only intensified as I’ve gotten older and more independent, all too aware that there isn’t much to fall back on if everything falls apart.
In 2015, after a lot of deliberation and a few months of preparatory therapy, I decided I wanted to meet my birth mother. I had so many questions and really longed for this sense of connection that I’d never had and taken to mourning every year on my birthday.
We found each other through Facebook of all things. I already knew her name thanks to my adoption papers which I was given when I turned 18 and so I tapped it into the search box and there she was — the first result. (This is something I’ve wanted to write about before but have never found the right words: to experience familial similarity for the first time as an adult in the digital age makes your brain spin. Genetics are weird. It felt like I was in my own science fiction clone family drama. Most people really do take for granted the fact that there are people in the world that look like them.)
It turned out she lived less than 10 miles away from me with her young son and that she was totally up for meeting me. We met in the middle and went for coffee every couple of weeks when I still lived in Hull and now, whilst I’m in London, we try to see each other once a year around my birthday.
Since our first meeting, I’ve met her sister and her family, and her mum and her boyfriend. I’ve learnt a lot about the family from her mother, who swears that I am the spitting image of her husband who worked on the docks and died when my birth mother was very young. She brought a lot of old photographs to a dinner one time and showed me all sorts of pictures of him. We are both very burly-looking Yorkshiremen.
Of course, that is only half the story. My mother isn’t comfortable about talking about my birth father and she remains the only person who knows who he is. She was very young when she had me and in the interview with her that was taken as part of my adoption papers she is elusive in a way that is stereotypically teenage. (She says he likes wearing jeans, hanging out with his mates and he works in an abattoir… It paints quite a picture.)
I’ve since taken great pride in the fact that I was born in Hull and my family worked in the shipping industry (as my adoptive mum’s family did too) and so I was glad to have that sense of home remain in tact and be strengthened; to not feel quite so adrift in the world anymore. That fact has only made me more curious though. I’ve speculated that, with Hull’s Viking history, there might be some Danish in me, and with our family long working the docks, who knows where people might have gotten knocked up along the various trade routes. I mean, Hull was the UK’s flagship port town for centuries! My DNA is probably a smorgasbord of worldly delights!
I got the email this afternoon saying my results were ready and couldn’t have laughed harder if I’d tried. Science has spoken and it has told me that my ancestors are 100% from the UK. That’s not a glib euphemism either. My DNA is 58% English, Welsh and Northwestern European; 42% Irish and Scottish.
Which seems weird though, right? Like, not even the obligatory sliver of Africa? The world’s original peoples? Apparently not. No doubt we came straight out of the ocean. Hull always did resemble Innsmouth.
Oh well. Just slap me on a Brexit billboard already. I am so white.