There were reasons to not spit in the plastic tube, send it through the mail and discover my ancestry. I’d flown to visit my parents for the holidays and discovered four rainbow-colored boxes stacked on their kitchen counter from 23andMe. Inside those boxes were slender vials awaiting our saliva. They would be shipped back to the company, which would tell us our family’s origins.
The first reason to not spit was I’d be willingly giving up my DNA, which could be subpoenaed. I didn’t plan on committing any crimes, but I disliked no longer having the option.
The second reason to not spit was more so the reason.
Last summer, I traveled to Italy. I saw my relatives’ faces in the hook-nosed and dark-featured passersby. I felt a homecoming like never before during a visit to any foreign place.
By taking the test, I could discover I was less Italian than I’d spent my life believing. This new awareness could be exciting. But just weeks after my grandmother’s death, I felt I’d prefer ignorance over discovering I was less like her than I’d always hoped to be.
When my sister and I were tiny enough to pretzel our legs on kitchen table seats, my grandmother put Gloria Gaynor on a tiny CD player. We untwisted our limbs and popped like corn with our bare feet bouncing off of cheap linoleum floor tiles. My grandmother grabbed a spoon and used it as her microphone to sing “I Will Survive.” Soda fizzed from my nostrils from laughing so hard.
My grandmother was quite the survivor. She was a single mother in the 1970s, working in a factory, and in her later years, at J.C. Penney Co. “It was awful,” she’d tell us. “Awful exciting.”
She wasn’t negative or positive—she was both. Complaints or compliments always had cunning edges meant to make her audiences laugh. This was usually accomplished through the use of swear words. She attributed her vocabulary to years working in the factory. But she never used her words to express anger. She used them for comedic effect.
My grandmother lived with her mother in a plantation-style, two-story home that had a sprawling wrap-around porch. The bathtub was nearly falling through the ceiling, and those linoleum kitchen floors peeled up during sticky summers.
My grandmother’s brain began to go when her mother died at 95 years old. We moved my grandmother from their crumbling home, which was already too big for two people, to a one-story place she hated. It felt like her mental decline was a rebellion for what we’d done, moving her out of her house where she’d wave to the neighbors from the porch.
There were reasons to go to Italy that summer, but the most important one was the progression of my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, which made the completion of this journey during her lifetime feel pressing.
We arrived first in Rome. When we told our driver that our next destination was in the Abruzzo region—where our relatives were from—he made a fist with his hand and struck the top of his head. “Capotosto,” he said. “Land of hard heads.”
We looked at one another, stunned, and then burst into laughter. My father’s grandmother was terribly stubborn.
Her name was Teadora. She came overseas like many during the early 1900s. She was 9 years old, alone, arriving at Ellis Island with only a picture of her father in her pocket to help identify him. He had gone to America to find work before the rest of the family joined, so the story goes.
Teadora didn’t talk much to me—or to anyone. Some of my only memories are of her barging into the bathroom on us mid-session. If she caught you with a toilet paper strand stretching the length of a happy birthday banner, she’d snatch it and rip off a square, scrolling the rest back onto the roll.
One square per bathroom visit—that was the rule.
I thought it was because they were poor, or incredibly frugal. They often fixed the car with duct tape; they preserved the couches by never taking the plastic covers off; and I once saw my grandmother take a stash of latex gloves from a hospital our relative was being treated at so she could use them to box-dye her jet-black hair.
So, I didn’t think to Google an image of Castel di Sangro, a four-hour train ride east of Rome, before arriving. I figured the town would be small and remote, as it is.
But I did not think it would be carved into a mountainside; peppered with red flowers in pots on wiry balconies; navigable by cobblestone streets; parallel to a river; and topped with a century-old church that rings its beautiful bell from a tower at 6 p.m. daily.
My family ran around town like kids on a scavenger hunt, looking for clues that would hint at who Teadora was, and in turn, who we are.
We stopped in a gallery showing art from the era when she lived there. We searched the paintings for her face, only to realize we didn’t know her face—the face she had when she was young. Her trace seemed to be lost with time.
Epiphanies often happen in bathrooms as water pellets strike the day off of skin—the mind wandering, then back in the shower, as it’s come up with a wonderful idea, or conclusion, or discovery.
Mine was a discovery; only it wasn’t reached by deep thought, or in the shower. I was instead poised on porcelain, staring at a wall the color of a green Smartie after it’d been sucked on for some time. It was attached to a quaint hotel room decorated with floral bedspreads and curtains done in the same shade.
I reached for a strand of toilet tissue. Only, there wasn’t a roll to be found. There was just a dispensary, which allotted one paper square. It was as if she’d barged in on me again.
When the test results from 23andMe entered my email inbox on a Wednesday morning, I didn’t open it. I didn’t open it the next day, or the next, either.
I finally queued up the message while I was on a train in New York City and showed my percentages to a stranger sitting next to me. Seeing how little he cared brought me comfort.
But I’ll share the results with you now, since you’ve stuck out this entire story. According to the data collector, I am 38 percent Italian. That’s 12 percent less than what I told my classmates in elementary school. That’s—weirdly—5 percent less than my sister’s results. And that’s 62 percent less than what my last name, Morlacci, suggests.
But I think about that square of paper often, and how my great grandmother carried that policy through her life, regardless of her address. I think about my grandmother and her swear words, and her attempts to still make me laugh even at the end of her life when she didn’t know me anymore.
Our habits, our quirks, our behaviors—and most importantly, our people—those are what make us who we are. Not a silly pie chart procured from a plastic tube of spit.
Start your own ancestry adventure
Genetic testing kits like 23andMe, MyHeritage DNA and AncestryDNA ran massive sales during the holidays, so it’s likely by now you or someone you know has participated. But that’s only the beginning. Now that the results are in, embark on a discovery of your past.
1. Connect with family members. The testing kits’ online resources gather regions of the world your bloodline traces back to—and it links you to family members far beyond first, second and third cousins. Reach out, have conversations and puzzle together family stories and timelines. Perhaps even plan a visit.
2. Take a tour led by experts. Once you have a solid idea of the regions and cities your ancestors originate from, plan a trip through tailored tour programs by providers like Go Ahead Tours via Ancestry. Included in the package is a DNA kit—in case you’re late to the game—a pre-trip family history review and the pairing of an ancestry genealogist who joins the tour to provide insight and answer questions as you embark on your trip to Ireland, Germany, Scotland and more.
3. DIY. Skip the research, the connections, the tour guides and just go.