No one longs for a pedigree as much as a mutt, and my son is no exception.
He’s been talking about sending away for one of those DNA kits that traces your lineage back to the Nephilim, then finds any scattered siblings, cousins, and long-lost relatives you may have lying about.
I think the relatives we know about are seedy enough; the thought of adding to their number frightens me.
One of my mother’s uncles, a formidable and very austere man named Juan Rodriguez de la Guardia, used to brag that he had traced the Rodriguez line all the way back to an ancient Duke of Castile. I was thrilled at the discovery of this exalted bloodline until my father pointed out that (a) Juan had probably bought the family tree from a scheister, and (b) we also had a myriad of ancestors of unknown origin.
Dad’s own provenance was a bit shaky. My father’s maternal line was old and impeccable (although I’ve always wondered why Cubans born of Spaniards from the Canary Islands looked so Chinese). His paternal line was a mess. My darling grandfather came from a town called Guayabon which was famous for its loose morals; his mother managed to give birth to him illegitimately, even though she was married seven times. He found out who his real father was when a neighbor told him he was the son of a man named D’Avila, who’d just been found dead in a ditch.
Many years later, I rejoiced that he hadn’t carried his real father’s last name, because the family name he used, Napoles, tied him to a semi-famous nineteenth century poet, Juan Cristobal Napoles Fajardo, known as “El Cucalambe.” This distant uncle was enjoying a burgeoning career when he disappeared without a trace at the age of 33; no one else on that side of the family ever showed the least little bit of creativity.
Mom’s family, however, was lousy with creativity. Her maternal grandfather, Miguel Valdes de Something-or-other, was a general in the War of Independence (known here in the States as The Spanish-American War). When he wasn’t commanding an army or fathering one of his seventeen children, he was a playwright. When Mom was orphaned at the age of 5, she was adopted by her uncle, whom I always called Grandpa. He was, of course, was one of Cuba’s two most important impresarios; the other one was his cousin Roberto. Together, they were responsible for mounting the shows that turned Havana into the world’s playground during the ‘40‘s and ‘50’s. Grandpa and a number of his siblings wrote poetry; they were all very profound unless they were being funny and irreverent, as they were all wont to be.
Mom’s paternal lineage is a bit murkier. Her father’s father was a Spanish sea captain who sailed into Havana at some point in 1890. By the time my grandfather was born in 1891, the captain had set sail again; he left my great grandmother to find long-lasting love (if not necessarily marriage) with a man named Salom. This man gave my grandfather his name, and sent him to the finest schools in Havana. He must have provided very well for my great-grandmother, too; I understand that in her later years, she would wake up at noon, put ample clouds of talcum powder on her already snow-white bosom, and paddle off to the movies every afternoon.
Her contribution to the family is still evident: once in every generation, one of her descendants is born with blue eyes: my grandfather, my Uncle Eduardo, my cousin Ana, my niece Ashley.
That’s about all I know from my side.
On my husband’s side, the kids are products of the Shtetl. Their paternal great-grandfather was a weaver from the Russian-Polish border who married his childhood sweetheart and came to Paterson, New Jersey to work at the mills. On their mother’s side, they come from Bialystok, but I have no other details. I was always a bit appalled at how incurious my in-laws were about their provenance.
Whatever my son learns when he buys his DNA kit will be interesting, but I’m at peace with our ancestry. We come from dukes and whores, artists, farmers and weavers, seafarers and tradesmen, ladies, poets and drunks.
I strive to be worthy of all of them.