Sunday, August 6, 2017

DNA Maze

It's been only a few days since FamilyTreeDNA launched their summer sale, and sure enough, here comes a matching offer from AncestryDNA. Perhaps the other companies will follow suit soon.

With the Ancestry offer running through August 15, and the FTDNA sale holding firm through the end of the month, the results are sure to pump up the matches for many. Me included, hopefully.

In the meantime, getting DNA matches is only the first step. Then, you have to analyze them, often involving contact with the other person (or that person's kit administrator) to compare notes. Family trees, if accessible at all, often seem to include mistaken entries or poorly documented assertions, requiring the most intense of us to furtively construct phantom trees on our matches' behalf.

But none of this follow-through can happen without actually, you know, contacting the other person. And, ahem, I've been rather remiss in that follow-through.

So this weekend was the time to make amends for my lack of contact. I've actually had several promising prospects, both for my own kit and that of my husband. Of course, almost all of those matches lead to family connections belonging to our well-documented maternal lines—can you sense my disappointment here?—but even then, a few surprises pop up. Let's just say the process provides a chance to fill in some of those empty branches on ye olde family tree.

That may sound like a simple process: meet up with a DNA match, explore each other's tree, and—whammo!—find the missing link, and a whole line of ancestors fall into place in the pedigree. But the process really is more convoluted than that. I spent, for instance, half a day yesterday, just preparing to send four simple email inquiries to our family's matches.

Of course, it didn't help that our new kitten decided one of those messages needed to be sent prematurely. Time for a rewrite. My senior editor has competition.

Between all the family members whose tests I administer at the various testing companies, I'm literally dealing with thousands of potential relatives through all these DNA matches. You'd think that would make a genealogist happy. But no; the majority of them are matches with the slightest dribble of chromosomal material in common. Fourth to sixth cousin—or farther removed—is not the kind of incoming report I consider good news.

Perhaps that's why we all yearn for more matches: not that we will actually be doing the work of diligently contacting each one of them, but that we are all gamblers at heart, hoping for that one big win which will bring the missing link straight to our genealogical door, courtesy of the wizardry of science.

If I could order up the exact match I'd like, it would be a second cousin on my "orphaned" paternal grandfather's line. Looking at the reality of numbers as they stand now, that is quite unlikely, given there is less than ten percent of my matches that even belongs anywhere on my father's side (including those I've actively recruited to take a DNA test). But we can't just demand such stuff. Random chance doesn't take well to being ordered around.

And so, we spend our weeks hoping for that golden match, despite knowing that the more matches we receive, the more work that piles up on our research plates. Looking for the needle in the haystack doesn't seem to get any easier, the more hay we pile on the stack. It just makes us feel better that the odds are now with us more than they were before.


  1. Replies
    1. Well...since you asked...though I warn you, keep in mind I am the one who gives dogs names like Ego and Folly.

      We chose to name the kitten Ketzl. In my recollection, that name comes from the buffoon basso character of the marriage broker in Bedrich Smetana's comic opera, The Bartered Bride, but my daughter insists that it is the Yiddish word for kitten.

      It turns out we have both spelled it somewhat incorrectly, but that is what stuck. However, we are both partial to a second name, "Possum," which describes what the poor thing looked like when my husband rescued her screaming self from where the stray was stuck in the bushes in our yard. So, her public name--at least when we take her to the dreaded vet--is Ketzl, but her pet name, when we feel like calling her that at home, is Possum.


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