DNAdventure: How I Got My Start in Ancestry Travel
A 4-star restaurant in SmallTown, Mississippi was where my mother, daughter, and I recently stopped for sustenance on a sticky July afternoon. I stepped out of the rental car holding my baby girl on my hip. The humidity was registering heavy on my desert-acclimated body. We darted between afternoon raindrops into the front door of the establishment that I'd researched on Yelp. It was easy to choose the place, not because of its online reviews, but because it was the only option available in the area. When you picture a "4-star" dining experience, you might picture an elegant table setting with exceptional service from a waiter in dress slacks. Well, the exceptional service was indeed spot on, in my opinion, because the gum-chewing young woman behind the 4-star rated gas station buffet counter was willing to make us fresh-out-of-the-fryer fried okra at my earnest request. She drawled taking extra time on each of the vowels, "How many orders of okra?" There were three of us dining at the gas station for lunch if you counted the baby, so naturally, I replied, "5 orders, please, ma’am!”
We sat down to enjoy our fried chicken dinner at a greasy table between the candy aisle and the soda fountain. We appreciated the food, not just because hunger makes the best spice, but because the crunch on the fried chicken was darn near perfect and the fried okra was worthy of requesting for one's last meal if it came down to that. After cooling off with a gulp of sweet iced tea, I asked my mom if she was nervous to meet her father's family.
Three Generation Pilgrimage
We were on a 3-generation pilgrimage to connect with a side of her family she'd never really met - her biological father's. Her father has been gone almost 6 decades and her young childhood memories of him are limited. My mother's step-father adopted her and she never had the chance to interact much with her biological father's family who were primarily from and continued to live in the small Mississippi town we found ourselves in.
When earlier this year my interest was piqued for DNA tests, finding new family connections, and genealogy research, I fervently requested that both my parents to take a DNA test with me. I knew having our tests linked in the same database would help my research in certain ways. Neither parent really wanted to do the DNA tests, for a combination of reasons including but not limited to: lack of interest and suspicion about how their saliva DNA sample could be used in the future. However, they both know that when their only child (me) gets that certain insistent won't-take-no-for-an-answer tone in her voice, it's easier to just go ahead and get on with it by agreeing.
Once my mom agreed to the DNA test, she asked me to take some of my research time to see what I could find out about her paternal grandparents and her family. Researching the family members my mom requested brought me to discovering photos of her paternal grandmother, who seemed to share a similar build and facial structure to my mother and shockingly similar hands. Since my mother did not inherit many of the physical attributes of her mother's family, this was an exciting discovery.
Seeing the images of family members long gone really intensified the feelings I felt in researching my family tree. I think one reason I've become enamored with genealogy is that I can easily picture the ancestors who came before me, whose strength I draw on, whose lives were hard, whose personalities and blood live on in their great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. I can feel them as if they were sitting next to me and sharing details of their lives with me themselves. I envision their weddings, their work, their children, their lives, their love, their hardships, their family spats, and their Sunday suppers. As a midwife and a mother, I feel particularly compassionate when I find records of babies and children born and buried too soon. When I find records revealing inconsistencies or an unexpected turn of events, I move from record to record piecing together the puzzle ignoring my bedtime and pretending like my kids won’t wake me up early with loud enthusiasm. I research and envision scandals and family secrets playing out like a Lifetime movie, the impacts of decisions that one person makes impacting the generations to come.
For my mother, the records, images, and information I found for her father’s side of the family added a rich layer of understanding to her few scraps of early childhood memories, like a patchwork quilt. The records I found came in part from government records and maritime ship’s crew lists, but the photos and real-life stories were shared directly by the family genealogist from that branch of the family. He’s been researching family facts and lore for almost as long as I’ve been alive. His name kept popping up in my research and with some dedication, I found his email address. “Cold-calling” relatives you’ve never met for family history information usually goes one of two ways: either you get ignored completely or they are eager to share their treasury of information. If the latter is true, you can expect long emails or a marathon phone call in your near future as you hastily scramble to pencil notes on paper.
As luck would have it, this particular family member was not only willing to upload cherished family photos online, he was also eager to share his knowledge of that branch of the family tree. He let me know he was also excited to hear from me as he’d tried to research what became of my mother, but given that her name changed when she was adopted by her step-father as a young child, it was impossible to find her whereabouts.
As we spoke on the phone, each of us on opposite ends of the country, I listened intently to his stories of family folklore and highlights of important family dates, places, and people. My baby impatiently whined as children do when their parent is on the phone. I had to end the conversation much earlier than I would have liked. But before we hung up, my newly discovered cousin invited me to the annual family reunion in one month’s time on a Saturday in midsummer. With the family reunion being only a few weeks away and 1700 miles away, I discussed it with my mom and we decided to take the “DNAdventure” together. The reunion just so happened to fall on my 33rd birthday and there seemed to be something poignant in taking a journey back to my roots in the Deep South, meeting family under the tall pine trees that 4 generations of my ancestors woke up under.
Relatives, Ancestors, Sweet Tea, and Huge Oak Trees: A Mississippi Family Reunion
When we arrived in Mississippi, we met my hospitable cousin and his lovely wife for dinner in a bigger town about a 45-minute drive away from the reunion, where we were all staying. With great enthusiasm, he regaled us with more family stories and research he’d collected for a heavy family genealogy book he’d written.
The next morning we set out early before the morning dew had been burned off the grass under the heat of a Mississippi Summer sun. When we pulled into the Church at the top of the sloping hill that was the site of the reunion, a friendly elder in his 80s (who bore more than a passing resemblance to my mother) greeted us warmly at our car. He moved with a bit of a spry shuffle, revealing simultaneously his age and his joy at connecting with his kin. He kindly offered to help us carry our potluck contributions inside, Southern hospitality alive and well in this hollow.
We gathered in the Church that had long hosted these family reunions and we worked to connect names to newly-familiar ancestors. Aunt So-and-So’s son and Cousin So-and-So’s granddaughter…. Many were still residents of the same Mississippi county. Other descendants had ventured out of the county in search of bigger cities, employment opportunities, and love interests.
The folding tables in the Church hall grew heavy with potluck offerings that made me glad I was born Southern. I could tell I was “home,” because the familiar Tupperware containers were circa 1972 and the reused Cool Whip containers had labels that were worn off from being washed so many times to hold leftovers. Home cooked greens, watermelon salad, ribs, fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, icebox pies, chocolate cakes, and more! And sweet tea. Gallons and gallons of that fine drink that gets offered in a bottle to Southern-born babies. The table was practically groaning and so was I over the enticing aromas filling the Church hall.
We gathered to share stories and introductions, to come together and to feel connected. My mama was told several times, “We always wondered what happened to you!” They were genuinely glad to meet her. It’s hard to truly explain the look I could see brimming in her eyes as she was accepted and welcomed to a part of her family, her history that had been unknown for nearly all of her life. After meeting and greeting so many friendly folks and filling our bellies stuffed, I looked out the window to see my cousin, the one who invited us, moving around the grounds of the small Church cemetery pausing to read tombstones. My mom and I also walked along the green grass and memorials worn by time and the elements, stopping to pay our respects to her father, grandmother, uncles, and other relatives. We walked up to a few cousins, who had paused at the graves of the pioneer family members who’d helped to found the town and Church in the 1800s. Their images loomed large in my mind as we reflected on their lives and their legacies.
I took a quiet moment and wondered what my life would be like if I’d known these ancestors: my grandfather, great-grandmother, great-great-grandparents. But then again it felt like I did know them and that by visiting this beautiful land where they lived, loved, and died, I felt inexplicably tied to them. One generation tied to the next, threaded throughout history, moving to my mother, me, and then my children. Three generations from this family representing the present and the future.
We moved back to the Church to say our goodbyes at the reunion, passing the huge oak tree shading the Church from the midday sun. Easily 5-6 adults could hold hands around the trunk of this stately oak. One of my newfound cousins shared the story that his parents told him: this tree had been used as a hitching post for my great-great-grandfathers horses, back when the tree was much younger and skinnier. That old oak has seen 7 generations of this family pass under its heavy branches. How many more generations of this family will the oak tree shade? As I left the reunion, the hitching post oak tree shrunk smaller in the rearview mirrors of the car. I left with gratitude for this journey I’d been on – back to my roots, celebrating my family, and learning more of my heritage.
I’m already looking forward to my next “ancestry travel” or “DNAdventure” travel experience that helps me feel closer to my ancestors who came before me. Stay tuned for more stories in the “DNAdventure” category. If you have an awesome ancestry travel story, please share it with us here.