In October I decided, rather on a whim, to order a genetics test from 23andMe. It’s a company that compares your DNA to populations all over the world and lets you know where your ancestors likely hailed from. I didn’t do this because I doubted my parentage at all (did you hear that, Mom? I believe you. Maybe other people who see us together assume I’m adopted, but I do not.
Anymore), but I wanted to see my father’s side of the family tree more clearly.
My dad passed away when I was very young. His mother passed when he was very young, and his father died almost exactly two years after Dad did. So while I had a vague idea of the Benson family heritage as communicated to me by my mother and aunt, I still felt a bit rootless. I knew we were Russian and Polish Jews, but that’s it (and to be honest, I wasn’t even sure how Polish we were. I came across a family tree partly filled out in my baby book, and it traces my paternal grandfather’s heritage to Russia and my paternal grandmother’s heritage to Turkey, but it went no farther back than that.)
When I decided to take the test, I realized the results may not tell me anything I didn’t already know. After all, they wouldn’t tell me who my ancestors were or what they were like or when or why they immigrated. But I still thought it would be worthwhile. I mean, if I had a nickel for every time someone asked, “What are you?” I’d have…a lot of nickels. Enough for an ice cream cone at least. Or a pizza bagel (I am so HUNGRY. I don’t know if you can tell.) And while I answered people’s inquiries with varying levels of truthfulness (more on that later), it always bothered me that I didn’t know the specifics of my dad’s ethnicity. Lately, I’ve summed it up by saying that half of me is Asian and half of me is some mix of Eastern European Jew. The genetics test, I hoped, would bring my paternal half into sharper focus.
Fast forward to December: The results came in, and they were…surprising. I was on the phone with my mom at the time, and I think the first words out of my mouth were, “I’m Irish?!” I would have thought it was a fluke if the rest of the report hadn’t corresponded to what I already knew. Japanese? Check. Southeast Asian? Check. Native American? Check. Ashkenazi? Only 2%. Eastern European? 0.6%. And then there was the big number at the top–British & Irish 17.2% Something was very wrong. I wasn’t supposed to be Irish (or British). Or Western European at all. I was supposed to be a Russian, Polish Jew. I was flummoxed. My mom was flummoxed. My aunt was flummoxed. I really like the word “flummoxed.” So descriptive.
Altogether, the test pegged me as being about a quarter Northern European (17% British/Irish and then about 5% broadly Northern European, which I guess means they can’t pin the DNA down to any specific group within Northern Europe.) This all pointed to my having a British/Irish grandparent. Only that couldn’t be. My mother’s parents were both accounted for, and neither were white, let alone British/Irish. My father’s mother was named Esther Abolafia, which doesn’t scream Irish to me. And my father’s dad, Philip Benson was supposed to have descended from Russian and Polish Jews. Years ago, my aunt had even flown to New York to speak with my grandfather’s family, and they had confirmed that this was true. We were Jewish. Jewish to the core. Only now it seems, maybe not so much.
Frustratingly, my search for answers had only turned up another mystery. Even more infuriating, I couldn’t see a way of solving it. The pertinent players were all long dead. I could only figure that someone had fooled around on somebody in my family’s recent history and gotten away with a doozy of a lie. Perhaps a milkman by the name of Cormac O’Shaughnessy had, um, serviced my great grandmother and she had passed the child off as her husband’s. (Looking at my fantasy scenario now I can see that the math doesn’t really add up, since the adulteress would have had to be Irish as well to make it work, but I think it’s pretty well documented that arithmetic and I are not on speaking terms.) Anyway, that’s about as far as my speculation went. The only logical explanation, to my mind, was that one of my grandparents was begotten of a randy, Irish milkman and never knew it, and no one was ever going to know it because the truth was lost to history. Or so I thought.
One of the features of 23andMe is that they match you up with possible DNA relatives. I have a whole list of 3rd to 4th and beyond possible cousins who share small segments of my DNA. But my closest relative in the system was a predicted second cousin, who I only knew as P. I didn’t contact P because I have nearly crippling social anxiety, and it’s a bit of an awkward conversation to initiate (Hi, I think we might be related. Do you have any idea how?) I hate awkward conversations like I hate the Patriots. The antipathy runs true.
This is all kind of important because a few days ago (has it really only been a few days? What a short, strange trip it’s been) I received an email, not from P himself but from his cousin, Alice. I’m so grateful that Alice was brave enough to ask those awkward first questions. She asked if I had any known connections to the C family, and I answered that I didn’t. I had never heard of the Cees. And then, interestingly, she asked me if I had expected my genetics results to report a sizable Ashkenazi component. I had expected it, I told her, but it turns out, I’m not very much Ashkenazi. Instead, I am unexpectedly Irish. It’s all very mysterious, I confided. And that’s when everything started to get a little weird.
Alice wrote that a few years back she had ordered a genetics test. She had expected the results to report that she was Irish, but instead they uncovered that she was half Ashkenazi Jew. She figured there must have been some mistake, but all of her brothers and sisters received the same results. P, her cousin, however, did not. Alice’s cousin, P, was not Jewish and was in fact not genetically related to Alice at all. This was a stunning discovery. Alice, being apparently more intrepid and persevering than I am, went searching for an explanation to her strange test results. After consulting a renowned geneticist, she came to the realization that her father and P’s mother were not biological siblings as they had always believed. The evidence was incontrovertible. Alice’s father, James, was Jewish. James’ parents, John and Katie C, were not. What could explain it? A baby switch, Alice told me. She believes that James was born to a Jewish family and somehow switched so that he ended up with John and Katie. The Cees left the hospital with James and James’ biological parents left with the C’s baby, and everyone was none the wiser.
It was an incredible story, I thought, but I didn’t fully understand what it had to do with me until Alice asked if it was possible that my grandfather, Philip, had been born at Fordham Hospital on September 23rd, 1913–the same day her father, James, was born. Unfortunately for Alice, I had very little knowledge of my grandfather’s life. A quick Google search of Fordham Hospital revealed that it was in the Bronx, and I knew that my father had grown up in the Bronx, so the location checked out as a possibility, but I didn’t know when my grandfather was born. Again harnessing the power of Google, I looked through the Social Security Death Index, and it had Phil’s birthday recorded as September 24th, 1913.
Huh. Could it be just a coincidence? I was well and thoroughly shocked. Could my grandfather have really been switched at birth with Alice’s dad? As farfetched as it seemed, the theory held such explanatory power I had to take it seriously. With this puzzle piece in place, suddenly Alice’s strange genetics results and my own made sense. Not only that, but the baby switch theory also made sense of what I guess we had all taken to be little family quirks. For instance, Alice’s father was quite short at 5’4, while the Cees tended to be on the taller side. My aunt reported that when she met my grandfather’s family in New York she was taken aback because they were all very small people and our branch of the Benson family is fairly tall (Seriously. I’m 5’6”, and I’m the shortie of the bunch). Obviously, none of these facts necessitate a baby switch to explain them, but it did cause me to wonder.
Alice very quickly sent me pictures of her grandfather, and I perused his face looking for a resemblance to my grandfather, Phil. Was John C Phil’s biological father? I couldn’t be sure. I thought I saw some resemblance around the eyes, but it wasn’t like Phil was his spitting image or anything. And don’t all white people look the same at any rate? (I kid.) Alice also sent me a picture of her father, and then we all waited with bated breath for my aunt to locate a picture of my great grandparents, Sam and Ida Benson. Clearly, Alice’s father, James, did not really resemble John C; would he look like Phil’s parents? And the answer to that is…I’ll let you decide for yourself.
This story is, of course, still unfolding. Nothing is absolutely certain, but Alice is pretty confident that she’s found the answer she’s long been searching for, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a very strange, nearly incredible premise, but who knows how rare such a thing really is? After all, if Alice and I (and P) hadn’t all happened to take the same genetics test, I would have never known any of this. It’s like a solution has landed in my lap to a mystery that I never even knew existed. If this is all true, then my grandfather Philip was an Irish lad raised among Jews who married a nice Jewish girl and pretty much lived a life that was meant for someone else entirely. That moment when my grandfather was placed in the wrong hospital bassinet completely changed the destinies of two men. Not just changed, but displaced and transposed them. And because of that, my father and his siblings were born and all of their children, and their children’s children. In a way we’re all descendants of a strange quirk of fate or whim of providence. It’s a little humbling to consider it.
So rest in peace Mr. Cormac O’Shaughnessy. I feel like I hardly knew you, but so it goes. Before I leave off, I want to make good on my earlier promise to explain my tendency toward mendacity when people asked about my ethnicity. Rather than rattle off the dauntingly long list of ethnicities I (thought I) was–after all, as a friend once told me, if you’re so many things, you’re really nothing at all–I decided to just choose an ethnicity that I liked, one tied to a country and a culture that I felt a kinship with for no discernible reason, and see if people believed me. They always did without fail, and it became a bit of a private joke. If you caught me in a sort of puckish mood and had the temerity to ask, “What are you?” I might well have answered, “I’m Irish, of course,” while inwardly chuckling at my terrible lie, which, it turns out, may have been an improbable truth after all. I guess the joke was really on me the whole time. Isn’t it ironic?