February 6, 2013

Genealogical Serendipity

Most people grow up having some sense of their history--who they are, where they came from, who they look like--what their overall heritage is.  When you grow up adopted things are different, or at least they were several decades ago when most adoption records remained sealed.  Of course I knew some of my adoptive parents' heritage; for example, my mother was Dutch all day long.  But I also knew that didn't mean I was.  Nor did I ever look like anyone in my family.  I was always just me, unique and wholly myself for better or worse.  Still, there is a certain advantage to that sort of anonymity and might in part explain why I always seemed to look like someone's uncle's cousin's babysitter's dog walker.  Since I never quite looked like anyone in particular, I instead looked like everyone.  Or so it seemed.

Naturally I had a history like everyone else but as far as I knew mine didn't begin till I was born.  There was never a sense of what had gone before because there simply wasn't a before.  Again, there are advantages to that, such as the ability to start out life with a clean slate.  After all, you can't be held accountable for whatever stupid things your ancestors may have done if you have no ancestors.  Life becomes what you make it, perhaps even more for adoptees than for everyone else.

More than a few times over the years I've wondered how I would fare in one of those "nature vs nurture" studies; how could I help but wonder how many traits I'd inherited from my birth parents vs how many I absorbed from being around my adoptive parents?  I've always known I picked up several habits (some good, some not-so-good) from my mother and, like my dad, I can be both a huge goofball or someone who talks big but who is really a giant softie underneath.  But which of my various traits were the result of my unknown genetic heritage?

Now that I've met NJ and we've been corresponding regularly for the last couple of months I'm starting to figure out what some of those traits are, and it's been freaky illuminating.  You know how sometimes in the news there are stories about twins separated at birth who grow up on different continents or in different cities in wildly disparate conditions and circumstances from each other?  And who, despite these divergences, still end up liking all the same foods or playing the same instruments or both running track or both flunking algebra?  Yeah, well, I'm starting to feel a bit like that too. Obviously my birth mom and I are not identical twins, but the number of similarities that we have thus far uncovered is a little scary.

What gets me, though, are not the commonalities themselves but the specificity of some of them.  For example, a lot of people could easily say they liked chocolate (who doesn't?), but how many would then qualify this declaration by stating that they prefer their chocolate to be broken up by other things, such as mint or wafers or Rice Krispies or whatever so that the chocolate will be less rich than if it were solid?  Apparently we both do that, just as we both abhor chocolate with coconut in it.  Well, I abhor coconut in anything really, but still.  Similarly, we both prefer hard candies to chocolate in general, but we also both chew the candy rather than sucking on it like normal people (a habit which drives the girlie bonkers, I might add).  Now really, how likely is it that we'd both do that?  A lot of people like Lifesavers, but how many of those people feel a need to pummel said Lifesavers to candy dust inside their mouths?  When I told B last night that NJ liked to chew her candy his eyes widened.  I'm the only other person he's ever known to do that consistently.  There are other coincidences, too.  And while there are physical similarities like our ultra-fine hair or big rack or dental issues, it's the little things--the unique quirks--which make this all so very real to me.

But it goes far beyond that.  Years ago, when my family traveled to England, we started out in London.  B was a royal pain, no doubt because of the sensory overload there.  A few days later, however, we got on an express train to Inverness.  The closer we got to Scotland, the more he relaxed, which made the girlie and me relax more as well.  Much of the countryside seemed grey and overcast, yet at the same time there was a palpable feeling of going home, of finding a place you belong, just because.  We all felt it.  Not surprisingly, we had a great time in Inverness and then Edinburgh, though sadly we didn't get to spend as much time in Edinburgh as we would have liked.   This journey with NJ is becoming a little like that as well.  While certainly it doesn't change how I felt about my adoptive parents in the least, I can't deny that there is a certain element of "coming home" to all of this discovery.

I'm learning that context is everything.  For example, I've been mildly obsessed with King Arthur and the legends surrounding him, both the old romances and more modern incarnations, for the majority of my life.  I wrote term papers on aspects of Arthurian legend in both high school and college.  I found it all terribly fascinating--not just the romantic idea of chivalry, but the concept of a unified government, where all men were essentially equal because they sat at a round table with no head and could therefore be equally heard.  I liked the philosophy of "right, not might."  Plus you've gotta love the sci-fi/fantasy aspect of some random Welsh dude getting a sword from a woman in a lake if for no other reason than because it spawned one of the most epic parody movies ever made courtesy of Monty Python.  So while I always thought King Arthur was pretty cool, I never expected to be tracking a line on my family tree one day and run smack into a whole cadre of Welsh forbears.  After all, I'd always assumed that I was part Irish or Scots rather than Welsh (though I may yet be once all the threads on my family tree have been traced).  Soon I began seeing familiar place names and familiar people--names I've read about in the Arthurian legends for years.  It was unexpected and exciting and remarkable.  Suddenly my lifelong affinity for Celtic mythology and artwork also started making more sense because, unexpectedly, there was a precedent for it--a genetic tie--just from a different Celtic nation than I'd anticipated.  To make things even more interesting, one of the Celtic names I've been randomly considering for my SCA persona is "Angharad," which turns out not only to be Welsh in origin but also turns out to be the name of about 10 of my Welsh ancestors.  Go figure.


As surprising as all this newfound Welsh heritage is, I was still stunned the other night to find the name "Anna Morgawse"--and especially the name of her father Uther Pendragon--in my family tree.  Uther Pendragon.  As in King Arthur's supposed father.  In most of the legends, Morgause is Arthur's half-sister, but according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the primary source utilized by Ancestry.com for Britons that far back, Anna Morgawse is actually Arthur's full sister.  This would make Uther Pendragon my 45th great-grandfather and King Arthur my 44th great-grand-uncle.  I was flabbergasted...fantasy meets reality.  Sort of.

Now don't get me wrong; I know that the likelihood of this connection being at all accurate is astronomically small.  I'm not an idiot.  After all, good old Geoff was about as scrupulous in his record-keeping as an amnesiac crack-head shooting up Drano would be.  And of course there are the chronological discrepancies between when the King Arthur of legend was supposed to have existed and those of the potential historical kings who could have been the basis for said legends.  Sure, I can plausibly trace my line back to Rhys ap Tewdwr and Rhodri Fawr (or Mawr, depending on which source you use).  But the Pendragons?  Yeah, that's a bit more of a stretch.  Doesn't mean I'm not gonna milk it, though, however unrealistic it might be.  More to the point, I find it remarkable that the possibility of relationship to King Arthur should arise at all after a lifetime of fascination with the king in question.  What are the odds of that, really?  I'm pretty sure Ancestry.com isn't charging for wish fulfillment.  Or maybe they are...who knows?

At the end of the day it doesn't matter that my "connection" to King Arthur is almost certainly bogus. There are enough legitimate Welsh kings back in my line that one or the other of them was bound to have been related in some way, however distantly, to whomever the real King Arthur was.  And I'm cool with that.  Either way, I've still gained more of a context for all my assorted interests and quirks.  I'm building a better understanding of how I became some of who I am, which is far more precious than any purported relationship to King Arthur. In other words, I'm finding my way home.

But you still have to start bowing.

6 comments:

  1. What a great history to learn! I wish I could learn more about my family tree...

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    1. Ancestry.com is kinda awesome, I've gotta say. It doesn't take much to start linking names and people. If you have the names and birth/death dates for your parents and grandparents at least, you can probably get a pretty good start. You do have to pay for the service, of course, but it draws from all sorts of scanned records. For example, it was a little freaky one day to find a scan of my application for a marriage license, complete with my signature on it. They link to censuses and immigration records and all sorts of things in one handy location so it's not a big stretch to link back several generations.

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  2. How fun to learn your family history. I haven't done that and really should as my grandparents as far as I have a clue. I do know I have Welsh heritage as well and my first name is a Welsh name. Love makes a family and you sound so lucky to have great parents!

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    1. Thanks! I liked them. :) And I highly recommend doing a little research...it's amazing what you can uncover.

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  3. I am currently halfway through rereading Mists if Avalon! I too enjoy the Arthurian legend in almost all of its permutations (not a big Monty Python fan).

    And now I can tell people that my new online BFF is Morgaine's 45th grand-daughter (according to MOA Morgause is the power crazy aunt - whatever!)

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    1. AHHHH! I LOVED Mists of Avalon! Haven't read it in years, though. Morgaine/Morgan/Morgana and Morgause are an interesting pair; their positions and relationships change depending on whose work you're reading. Generally speaking, though, they are both problematic to Arthur in one way or another. One of my favorite takes on Arthurian Legend is by Stephen R. Lawhead, who incorporated the legends of Lost Atlantis to help explain how Merlin came to be Merlin. Also, he starts well before Arthur himself to give that whole backstory. The first book is titled "Taliesin" and is largely about Merlin's parentage. The next is titled "Merlin" and is pretty much Merlin's backstory. Arthur doesn't show up till the third novel. Including Atlantis isn't very plausible in reality, but it makes for a very intriguing retelling of all the old legends.

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