Kimbal pushed open the heavy wooden door of our favorite Indian restaurant. I walked in to see tables arranged end to end for my suprise birthday party – all empty. Everyone was late. Kimbal stood bewildered while I went straight to the buffet and poured a cup of Chai to hide my disappointment and insecurity. As friends and family began to trickle in with hugs and happy birthday wishes, I smiled, but inside I wanted to tell them they were assholes.
As mimosas were served, the party livened and my mood began to improve. Gifts were set between plates of Korma and Tikka Masala that soothed my inner smoulder. Kimbal leaned in between conversation that flowed around us and handed me an unwrapped, padded envolope. “The gift that keeps on giving” he clichéd purposefully. The return address was from a DNA testing company. I received a few other things; a vintage jacket, some antique books, fancy soap, but the DNA kit sat in my lap, hidden under the white tablecloth, and dominated my mood – now somewhere between pensive and curious.
I had often been asked why I never looked for my father. Kimbal nudged me about it early on in our relationship. He would talk about genealogy and DNA and I would bristle. It was a can of worms I didn’t want to open – adamant that I already had a family and didn’t need more. I was also afraid. My father, and the family I assumed he had, knew nothing of me. I didn’t want to be blamed for the hell I imagined would break loose if I found him. However, there is another reason for my reluctance; one so subtle I never even formed the thought completely until now.
Since childhood, my father had always appeared the same in my imagination. He was slightly skinny with a paunch and a comb-over and lived in a dated sub-division. At best, he had a boring family and job he had done for years after he stopped playing music. At worst, he was a burnt-out loser who lived by himself and drank in front of the TV when he wasn’t in bars. This is not who I wanted for a father. I don’t know why my mind created such an unflattering image of him, maybe because it was easier to reject something than to long for it. Or maybe I was just projecting the shame of not knowing who I was.
My grandfather Antonio was my father figure – it’s telling that I needed to assign the role to someone, but he was ideal. He played old school Salsa at family Christmas parties and taught me to dance. He took me on early morning walks in Tampa Bay, stopping by the Cuban bakery for coffee and bread where I listened to him banter in Spanish. He was wonderfully cosmopolitan and debonair – a talented artist and musician that I attributed my musical talent to.
I was proud of my mother’s side of the family and our interesting history. I clung to my Venezuelan roots because they were all I had – self conscious that I looked so different from my dark skinned family. I speak better Spanish than any of my cousins, I know more about our family history than anyone, but I am not Venezuelan. My known roots had been stretched and diluted since my mother came here in 1958.
In the solitude of home, I opened the DNA kit and placed the items in front of me like some kind of ritual ceremony. I was an initiate in a magic rite of passage, requesting ancient, hidden knowledge. I read the directions carefully. Afraid of doing it wrong, I counted the seconds as I scraped inside my cheeks with the plastic toothbrushy wands. I secretly hoped I was Scottish. I’ve always loved the music from that part of the world and what it became when they brought it here. There is something about the scratchy twang of Appalachian song that jogs some deep part of me.
I drove my sample to the post office, pulled open the creaking jaw of the mailbox, and dropped it in. I heard it land softly in the bed of letters below, ready for its journey. The jaw clanged shut as I let go. I tried to put it out of my mind, but as the weeks passed, it quietly needled me. The holidays came and went, then finally around mid-January, I received an email that my results were in. I typed my password, and clicked on the box that said “My Origins”. What I felt was deeper than curiosity or excitement. For the first time in my life, I was able to see who I was. The chart showed my supposed genetic make-up in percentages. I knew what came from my mother’s side; the African and Native American DNA undetectable in my olive, Italian-ish complexion. I found it interesting but not suprising. I was more curious about what I didn’t already know. The chart showed that 33% of my European DNA was in the British Isles (maybe there was some Scottish blood in there!) but there were other genetic populations that hadn’t occurred to me. Finnish? Vikings I supposed, but where did Ashknenazi and Iranian come from? It was fascinating and I was overcome with a deep sense of connection to history. I had 32 pages of DNA matches – people who had also taken the test and were my distant cousins. We were all the result of thousands of years of migration across continents, of civilizations built and destroyed; thousands of years of love stories, hate stories, survival.
I had taken the test only wanting to know my ethnicity, but something changed when I saw the long list of people I was genetically related to – they coaxed a curiosity I had supressed for years. I knew these English surnamed people must be on my father’s side. Campbell, Spradlin, Johnson, Davis, were all threads in a story I had never had access to. They were clues that could fill in my lopsided, half empty family tree.
For months, I scoured the information of my DNA cousins; searching for anything that might illuminate a path. My desire for answers grew more powerful as a new, uncontrived idea of myself began to emerge. I wondered what my name would have been if my father had raised me; what my life would have been like. As I looked into the family histories of my distant cousins, the unflattering image of my father faded away. Their middle-American stories were fascinating and I wanted to know mine.