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How the Technology of DNA Testing is Changing Roots in Family History

I did it. I took the DNA test and I was surprised by what I found...

I hopped in the car alongside my mom, rolling down the window to reveal my little hand furiously waving back at my grandparents as they stood in the window smiling, my grandma’s hand jiggled loosely. “Bye!” I shouted, “Bye!” as my mom backed the car out of the driveway.

As a child wrapped in a safe utopia you think little about where your roots were grounded. As we age, lose ones we love, and understand ourselves better we discover that world history isn’t the only history of value. Family history is just as important.

With websites like ancestry.com ,allowing easy access to census records, birth certificates, and grave sites, our branches are easier to trace to the roots. DNA testing is now added to ancestry.com and for a small additional fee you can also see what traits you are mostly like to have inherited and can pass on. With all this technology, society is discovering family they have never known – discovering secrets locked away from years ago…

When I participated in the DNA discovery I yearned to know the percentages of which ancestry bloodlines I had genetically inherrited. But I got something a little extra with it, a new story about my grandpa. For I had never knew he had a nephew and it somehow slipped through the cracks to immediate family memebers as well.

I don’t think this is information my grandpa tried to hide. I have since found out he had a relationship with his nephew who lived in Florida while he resided his life in Ohio. I honestly think my grandpa just didn’t bring up these types of things unless a question was directed. He’d often sit in the background listening and observing; but he’d chime in when the timing was right for facetious comments, mostly to rile my grandmother and create laughter. The news of my grandpa having a nephew, the sister who had longed passed away in a car accident, meant his roots branched further than I knew and I was thrilled to gain more pieces of my grandpa!

As I coordinated facts and missing links with my found third cousin, her dad my mom’s discovered cousin, we have decided to finally settle a family mystery that wasn’t solvable back then. (This mystery will require me convincing my mother to give her DNA over.)

Over the last twelve years or so, my main source of reference to my roots was a book written by a husband of a distant cousin on my grandpa’s side. Dave Werts, an amazing writer and detective, traveled far and wide tracking the Retzsch roots for his beloved wife (Melanie), across America to Germany and anywhere cracks fell in between. He released the book, Retzsch In America and I have to admit I have read the heavy book from front to back three times. His research, details and book release were a profound moment in my life, the first opening “window of curiosity”, peaking inside myself to learn and wanting to know more. His research sparked conversations with my grandparents that would have never happened otherwise – and to him I am forever thankful for these moments.

My new found third cousin, Kathy, and I have coordinated trying to connect missing puzzle pieces, between the book and what her dad and my mom remember…

That being said, it was my great grandfather, Clifford, and my great grandmother, Elenore, that had a whirl wind love story perfect for Hollywood. Elenore was single and became pregnant in 1912, which Clifford denied the child as his. Elenore fought back and took Clifford to court to prove the baby girl was indeed his. After a trial of witnesses admitting they’ve only seen her with Clifford, he was charged for what we would call ‘child support’ these days (back then it was considered ‘Bastardy’.) But their story doesn’t end there…

Elenore bounced to a new man by the name of Charles and became pregnant again in 1914. This time she claimed the bouncy baby girl was indeed Charles’, but visits with Clifford could have been likely during these times…

It is thought that the girls lived with Elenore and her mother for quite a while and when the first World War began, Clifford went off to fight for his country, leaving money hardships behind. It’s unclear why (assuming it was due to money), for a brief amount of time the young girls bounced from an orphanage back to their grandma.

While Clifford was fighting against the Germans advancing in Marne, France, it is unknown what happened to Elenore, what she was to during this time, but when the war ended in 1918 and Clifford returned to Cincinnati, Ohio, him and Elenore reunited. Though still not married, to the best of any of our knowledge (I would certainly add a wedding in the Hollywood version) she became pregnant again in 1921 and my grandfather was born.

However, records were missing from this time frame.

  1. Elenore’s Death record
  2. My grandfather’s birth certificate
  3. If there was a marriage certificate for Clifford and Elenore

These records are believed to have perished in a court house fire of Hamilton County, Ohio.

But…

I was blessed my grandfather was living when the book, Retzsch In America was released. One day while my sister took my grandma on another milk run (grandma could never have too much milk) I sat in the family room, my grandpa in his comfy, broken in blue rocking chair and I curled up in grandma’s matching chair, diagonal from his. His pointer finger flicked against his thumb nail; a habit I have since picked up over the years.

I first asked him about the war, a subject I was hushed by my mom for years when I was a teenager, for when she was growing up it was a forbidden subject. Grandpa didn’t hesitate to open up to me now, perhaps he wanted his story told, passed on, saw the value of it after years of some sort of healing process… He explained how his job was to pick up the bodies of US soldiers in Normandy after D-day… his eyes went blank for a moment and his voice grew softer as he relived the era. “That was my job for a while, going into battle scenes and collecting the bodies of American Soldiers. My one friend had to be discharged early, they only kept us on the job for about six months, you know for mental health reasons… and then rotated a new crew in… but six months was too long for a friend of mine…”

He relived his friend’s grief, how it affected the man emotionally and mentally… not admitting to similar feelings he may have had. Then suddenly, switching gears after a brief moment of silence, “But then I was back on the boats… I was in the navy…” and his stories continued now more upbeat as he grinned over these memories, reliving the time he volunteered to swim in shark infested waters, not seeing the creatures from above as his service men had. “No wonder no one else wanted to swim over to get that drum,” he chuckled.

“I don’t regret it,” he told me, “I’d do it all over again.”

And then I asked my grandpa if he knew what happened to his mother…

The question appeared to take an unexpected tug at his heart and he thought for a brief second before answering, “She died during child birth with me…I never knew her.”

That information in itself was revelation, a moment in my grandpa’s life he wouldn’t expose to Dave Werts for whatever reason… a missing puzzle piece in Dave’s book (I couldn’t wait to disclose the information to Dave after his years of research and hardwork in writing the book. This information was valuable to both of us.)

After a moment of thought, his face brightened and the wrinkles around his sockets widen as his blue eyes lit up, “You know, we joke about it but my breaks really did give out when I was going to pick your grandma up for our first date…” it was a story he never told but always poked about as we teased my grandma over it, enjoying the laughs at Grandma’s expense as she rolled her eyes and shook her head. However, on this night, he wanted me to hear the whole story, his story, a truth on how he fell in love with my grandma… I, delighted, curled into the lounge chair and listened with an admiring smile.

The rest of his mom’s death during child birth was slowly revealed by my mom’s faint childhood memories. She steadily recalled over hearing her aunt telling my grandpa a story… which it must have beenthe story. My mom remembers as if it’s vaguely a dream to her… Now, she tries to understand what she interpreted as a child and the actual meaning of it today.

“His eldest sister was assisting with the home delivery when things began to go wrong. She had to run down to the bar in town to grab her dad to hurry home…” (His sister would’ve been nine years old at the time, witnessing her baby brother’s birth while her mom was not able to survive the delivery.)

My new found cousin and I have been putting the pieces together, racking the brains of our parents and my uncles to anything they can remember.

Since my brother and cousin have also had the DNA test done, according to match up between them and Kathy’s dad, it is highly possible all three children of Elenore’s were indeed Clifford’s (leaving out Charles in the equation). When my mom’s DNA test returns, we will know for sure.(Stay tuned – I’ll update)

Is it important where we come from?

I think so.

DNA is part of our core, the information can help us grow: track medical issues, genetic inheritances as well as passing on heritages and culture.  I continue my grandpa’s German tradition of sauerkraut for the new year, though I must pass on the pickled, raw Herring. I have discovered I have English and German in my DNA (which was known and expected), and surprisingly Swedish, Russian and Jewish. Somewhere in history, these decendants, have pieces of them living in me today. I can find their stories and pass them down to further generations before they are lost altogether. Tread lightly on who you choose to discriminate against or make up predejuces towards… Do you know what DNA strands run through your blood? We are a diverse world.

If you are one that is still blessed to have grandparents in your life, I highly encourage you to ask questions (my dad’s mom was able to pass down stories from the Civil War days; she even still had a scrap book filled with yellowing newspapers, printed drawn pictures and headlines of what was happening during the 1860’s as men battled.) Listen. Engage. Write down their memories. Follow these steps so you don’t forget and can continue to pass down your family history for generations… for you never know what mysteries you might uncover in your rooted tree.

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