Filling the Hole in our Heart (DNA Connections) (The Palumbo/Zimmardi Family and Beyond)

Filling the Holes

If I calculated this right, I have four siblings (other than me), thirty-seven first cousins and, many many second cousins (or first cousins once removed if you want to get technical).  So with all these first cousins, and the fact that we span about forty years in age, perhaps it is not surprising that there are some that I have never met.  The fascinating part of being cousins is that we share DNA that has come down through thousands of generations.  Each generation imparted half of their DNA to the next generation, however, not always the same half.  I have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen 2x grandparents, thirty-two 3x grandparents, sixty-four 4x grandparents, 128 5x grandparents, 256 6x grandparents, 512 7x grandparents, 1,024 8x grandparents, and so on. So now that I have started down the path of DNA testing, I am finding my 5th to 8th cousins.  Simply fascinating!  Now, I have been working on my family tree for about twenty years and I currently have 2,813 people in my family tree, spanning 275 years from the oldest to the youngest.  I have not yet been able to get further back than about the year 1740, but hopefully, someday I will.  I can’t always connect on paper, exactly how I am related to all of my DNA cousins, but with DNA testing, I can jump ahead of my paperwork and work backwards.  “Okay, so now I know we are related, let’s see how” instead of “who am I related to?”

When we look at old family photo albums, we see people we bonded with as children.  No matter how many years have passed, no matter how many miles now separate us, we are bonded by that childhood and common experience.  But not everyone gets to know their biological family.  I believe knowing who you are is a basic desire that we all share. While I did grow up in my biological family, I still had a need to find my roots in Italy because I wanted to know “who” and “where” I came from.  When my grandparents came to America, they brought traditions with them, but they left their family stories behind.  Perhaps it was such common knowledge to them that they assumed it wasn’t important to pass on.  Perhaps it was too painful to talk about.  Perhaps they came here to intentionally leave it behind . . . families are not always perfect.  But for whatever reason, this void has left me with a desire to know, to research, to discover.  And as a writer, I want to know more than their names, I want to reconstruct their stories.

In the early 1990s, I wrote letters to Italy to find the relatives of my mother’s father.  I was able to connect with his half-brother, Luigi.  Luigi was only two years old when his oldest brother, Angelo, my grandfather, came to America, so he didn’t really know him.  My grandfather, Angelo, died when I was only ten months old, so I didn’t really know him either.  Yet here we were, the two of us,  separated by the eighty years that had passed since my grandfather had left Italy and the thirty-some odd years since his death, sending letters to each other to try to discover who he was.  We each provided pieces of the man we shared in common, and together we found our family bond.  In one letter, Luigi, who was in his eighties at the time, told me that I had “filled a hole in his heart.”   It was exactly how I felt about him.

Most of my first cousins and their children were lost to me for a while, life had gone on for each of us, separately, but they have been restored to me through the magic of Facebook.  Even more amazing is that I have been able to find cousins whom I never knew existed.  Connecting people who share my DNA has become a passion of mine.  Each person has a piece to the puzzle.  With each additional person, the whole picture becomes clearer.  Who we are? . .  . Who and Where we came from?  I have been told that if you go back far enough, we are all cousins.  I think that thought devalues who cousins are to each other.  When the DNA gets infinitesimally small, there is no value in it.  I want to know why I have so many facets to my personality.  I want to know why I look the way I do.  I want to know why I feel the way I do.  The answers to these questions are in two places.  The first I already know, it is in my immediate environment, where I grew up and who raised me.  This is part of who I am, either through the acceptance of it or the rejection of it.  But there is also an innate part of me that was passed down through generations.  I want to discover their names and their stories.  I want to know who they were, so that I can better understand who I am.  If you discount this by saying, it doesn’t matter to you, then count yourself one of the lucky ones.  The rest of us have holes in our hearts, and some of us need them filled more than others . . .   Author of The Tin Box Trilogy

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