Wendy Sikes is rocking the foundations of my world.
The 51-year-old from Denver, Colorado, sends me a message through 23andMe — a sort of genetic LinkedIn. She tells me that she was adopted and believes she may be my third cousin. She asks for the names of my great-great-grandparents.
It sounds like a simple request, but it is, in reality, an existential question.
It calls up the very nature — and nurture — of my being, of who I am, and what my background really is. It also helps to explain why I tend not to dwell on ancestry.
I grew up in a renovated croft house in Shetland, Scotland, with my mum and dad — Rose and Chris Young — and my sister Kirsten and brother Robert. My grandparents were Nancy and Tom Oliva, second-generation Italian Americans on my mother’s side, and Harry and May Young, from South Shields, England, on my dad’s.
Hang on. Before that.
I was born in Salem, Massachusetts. My birth dad was George Tupper, married to my mother at 17, divorced less than two years later. We lived in Lee Street in Marblehead. Then he met and married Sue and, still in Marblehead, we moved to Beacon Street where my sister Kim was born. My grandparents were Edith and Wyman Tupper, red-blooded Americans since 1638 on my dad’s side, and Ed and Aileen Grant, second-generation Irish Americans, on my stepmother’s side. George died aged 23. Cancer.
Hang on. Let’s go back.
My mother, Rose, was adopted. Her birth mother was Electra Zazopoulos, a first-generation American Greek/Turk, married to Louis Scrilis, whose family hailed from Greece. They also had two sons, George and Chris. Her grandparents were Christos and Cleona Zazopolus, born in Greece.
OK, wait up.
Mum never lived with her mother, and Lou was not her father. In fact, she has no idea who her father is. See, Electra had a long-term boyfriend in college before she met her future husband, Lou. A naval officer specialising in intelligence, Lou went off to war shortly after the engagement and then spent an extended period in China after the conflict. From there, he called Electra collect to break their engagement. Distraught, she sought solace from her college sweetheart — now married himself with a young child (another half-sibling into the mix). Mum seems to have been the result of that meeting. As there was no possibility of them getting together, Electra subsequently travelled to an orphanage in Maine and gave mum up for adoption at birth. When Lou eventually returned, he and Electra patched things up and married. Then came half-brothers Chris and George. (Oddly, the same names of my fathers and, equally oddly, George also died young. Aids.)
So, what are the genetic strands that link Wendy and me?
It could be through me, my birth mum and dad, or it could fan out via my half-sister and her subsequent half-sister, or the spouses of my uncles and aunts, or their children. It could be the Greeks, or more likely the mysterious Irish.
But more importantly, who the hell am I? I am a dual national who has lived in the UK for almost 50 years. I thought I was an Italian American made whole by Scotland. But now I’m a Greek American living in England. Or am I an Irish American living in England? Before 1638, the Tupper family was actually English, from Sussex. And the place where Electra’s family came from in Greece was shifted after their departure to become Turkish. And just how American are Americans anyway?
This lather of ancestral obsession is nothing new, of course. In 1701 Daniel Defoe was pondering on the same question about English King William, born in Holland, and subtly (or maybe not so subtly) ridiculing the idea of English racial purity:
“ ’Tis well that virtue gives nobility,
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive.”
The past truly is another country.