Letters from our ancestors: Part 1
As suggested by the name of the television series Who Do You Think You Are?, researching your family history changes who you think you are.
I was born in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, and grew up thinking I was English and Roman Catholic, which I now realize is a bit of a contradiction. I now know that only one of my grandparents was English and only one of my great-grandparents was Catholic. I also discovered that the surname on my birth certificate is not the original surname of my ancestors in my direct paternal line. My family history is far more complicated than I ever imagined, and with very little information to go on regarding my paternal line I have turned to the letters inherited from my ancestors that have meaning because I share them with other people, the “volumes of history, written in the ancient alphabet of G and C, A and T”*.
“The secret recipe for all life is written in just four letters: A, C, G and T. Each of these letters stands for a chemical called a nucleotide: A for adenine, C for cytosine, G for guanine, and T for thymine. Like a single letter of the alphabet, each nucleotide means nothing all by itself. But like letters strung together in a word, the order in which they appear in the DNA molecule is what matters. The sequence of nucleotides in DNA gives the unique instructions for how to make each one of us.”*
“All of us … share similarities in our DNA. Your DNA code is most similar to those of other people in your family.”*
Scientists believe that we all share a common human ancestor who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago (Mitochondrial Eve), so what explains our genetic diversity today?
“We’re all different from one another because over time, DNA steadily changes, or mutates … the longer two people have been separated from their common ancestor, the more mutations will have piled up … By comparing the mutations of different DNA samples, … (one) can tell how long ago different individuals … shared a common ancestor.”*
*Search for the Golden Moon Bear, Sy Montgomery
Incidentally, the title of the 1997 science fiction film Gattaca was derived from these four letters.
The brick wall
My mother was born in England and my father was born in Canada and served in the British Army during World War II. They met in Africa in the early 1960’s, settled in South Africa and had three children. My father passed away in 1967 and my mother, who passed away in 1992, knew or told little about his family. To this day, I have not been able to verify my father’s birth information and the earliest record I have been able to obtain for him is his army service record.
A breakthrough in the search for information about my father’s family came about when my brother obtained a copy of our father’s death notice signed by my mother. The death notice contains some information I already knew and something else quite unexpected, the name of a surviving spouse who was not my mother. This name eventually led me to a marriage record in England, the birth record of their first child, and his number in the UK telephone directory. I telephoned my half-brother and later met him and his family for the first time in 2005.
My half-brother, who was born in England, told me that he had travelled to South Africa with his parents in the early 1950’s but soon after he and his mother had returned to England, where a second child was born. My half-sister passed away in 2001 before I had a chance to meet her. My half-brother also told me that our father’s parents came from Germany and that their surname was Reinhardt, which was news to me. My mother had told me that my father’s mother was Jewish, but my half-brother had no knowledge of that. According to at least one source Reinhardt is a Jewish surname but that does not make complete sense assuming it was the surname of my father’s father and not his mother’s maiden surname, so wires may have been crossed somewhere.
“Reinhardt is a common German, Danish, and to a lesser extent Norwegian surname (from Germanic ragin, counsel, and hart, strong).”
“German and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from a Germanic personal name composed of the elements ragin ‘counsel’ + hard ‘hardy’, ‘brave’, ‘strong’.”
Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press
I now know more than I knew before about my father’s family, but still not enough to locate a birth record for my father or further details about his parents and their origins using conventional genealogy. The 1921 Census of Canada, the first taken after my father’s birth, will be made public in 2013 and I hope to find my family in it. In the meantime, I am fishing new waters for clues.
“I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.” Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), as translated by Joan M Burnham