Who was my grandfather?
It was a family mystery I attempted to solve several years ago when I visited ninety-five year old Uncle Clay. Clay was the only one left alive who could tell me if it was true, that my dad’s adopted father, Charlie Holland, was in fact my true, genetic grandfather.
“Hey girl?” Uncle Clay whipped his head this way and that, trying to use the pigeon-holed vision he had in his one remaining eye to see me. I sat about two feet in front of him.
“I’m here,” I reached out and touched the loose skin on his bony hand. “So Grandpa Holland had an affair while he was married to grandma, and then adopted the child from that affair, right? Nobody knew dad was Grandpa Holland’s real son, but he is isn’t he?”
“Charlie …” Uncle Clay began then stared blankly into space for a moment, “okay…sure, sure. It’s what you say.”
He might have been mostly deaf and certainly blind, but Clay’s acknowledgement of the truth of this story was good enough for me. I wanted the riddle solved. I wanted to believe Charlie Holland, the grandfather I’d known all of my life, was also my real grandfather in every sense of the word.
Ancestry-dot-com had not even entered the scene when I visited Uncle Clay back in 1998. It would be some time before I, like 26 million other people (according to CNBC), used consumer DNA tests to find information on my heritage. With a 99.9 accuracy rate, DNA testing is not wishful thinking, it is science and as such, these tests are not swayed by the emotional needs of their customers. So it was with great disappointment that I eventually discovered I have Scotland and Ireland in me, but no Holland—either the country or the surname. Uncle Clay had fudged the truth. Of course, I set him up and lead him to this lie.
I pushed my frail, great-uncle (by adoption) until he told me what I wanted to hear.
After I found out about my ancestry through DNA analysis, I called an old friend of mine who I don’t see very often, just to talk and catch up. He confessed how disappointed he was with DNA testing too.
“I know I’m a quarter Cree Indian—I don’t care what their test says,” my friend was adamant.
He and I both grew up in the 60’s when claiming Native American ancestry was counter-culture and cool. Paul Revere and the Raiders sang songs with lyrics like, “Cherokee nation, Cherokee tribe, so proud to live, so proud to die…” A movie came out in 1971, Billy Jack, starring a handsome lead actor who played a part-Indian, Viet Nam vet with some serious butt-kicking skills. Obviously, my friend had been taken in by these romanticized images of being a half-breed.
“But your DNA tests show your ancestors were from Europe. Surely you’re not going to argue with the science?”
But he could argue, and he did. “I’m not too big on science anymore,” he said as easily as disclosing he didn’t like broccoli.
I was dismayed and surprised by this comment. If he didn’t trust or believe in science anymore, why didn’t he get rid of his cell phone, computer, and car? Conveniences like these were given to him by science. My friend had become very religious though. He told me he preferred to trust his feelings rather than some DNA laboratory.
This summer I thought about that long-ago phone conversation when I read a New York Times op-ed entitled: “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling our Coronavirus Response.” Some lies are harmless and maybe even make us feel better: Grandpa Holland is, and always will be, my grandfather. Other stories we tell ourselves though, can be absolutely deadly.