After delving into both my genetic and family records, I have developed a clearer picture of my own cultural history. I made unexpected discoveries about my ancestors and connected some dots in my family history. Overall, I came away with a better sense of the motivations and personalities of some of my most distant relatives. Where before I saw them as distant specters, through my research they became fully fleshed out individuals with whom I feel proud to share a connection.
Records on my father’s side go back to the early 1900’s in Germany. Shortly before World War I, my great-great grandparents, the Muellers, came to America on a sponsorship from a relative who lived in Oakland. They crossed the Atlantic in a ship (one of the first vessels to be contacted by the distress signal of the RMS Titanic, though it was too far away to help), then rode across America by train. They spoke no English and never gained full citizenship. They settled into a tiny house, which they would soon share with more immigrating family members. The men of the family acquired jobs in a nearby slaughterhouse, but quit after a year or so to start their own butchery.
Around this time, another family line hailed from Tennessee, at least as far back as they were willing to admit. My grandma’s great uncle was a man named Clarence Saunders. Saunders founded the Piggly Wiggly market chain in Memphis, effectively inventing the modern supermarket. The chain spread into California and became the place where my great grandparents would first meet. They moved to Northern Idaho and built themselves a ranch near a tiny town called Bonners Ferry. Some 60-odd years later, my ownparents moved to Bonners Ferry to raise my brother and I.
On my maternal side, the family lines can be traced back to Italy and Bavaria. My grandfather’s grandparents, the Bauer family, emigrated from Germany in 1914. They came to America, inspired by the same tales of opportunity and bountiful resources that attracted the Muellers. As the saying went, in America, “The streets are paved with gold bricks and cooked pigeons fly right into your mouth.” The Bauers drove in a motorized car as they left their sizeable estate in Germany for the last time. When they got to America they rode away in a horse drawn buggy. They travelled to Iowa, where they bought a house without electricity. They wrote letters back home, stating their dismay at the lack of “progress” in America. Nonetheless, they settled in and began
raising their family, cultivating farmland and operating businesses. My grandfather was born the youngest of nine children. He enlisted in the military in 1953 and met my grandmother at a basketball game while stationed in Fort Lewis, Washington.
My maternal grandmother’s family hails from Germany, Italy, and Britain. My great-great grandmother, Daisy Tarleton, was a school teacher in Tacoma Washington. Her father was a British sailor from Liverpool who jumped ship in Canada and made his way to the United States. Daisy married John Youk, a man of German descent. Not much else is known about Youk, as detailed records are hard to come by. My grandma’s paternal line hails from Italy. John Mazza was born in Ceraso and later immigrated to the States. He became a policeman in Chicago, but fled due to the influence of Al Capone and his ilk. He and his wife moved to Tacoma to raise their son, my great grandfather, Tom Mazza. Tom was born in the United States but never learned to speak English until the fifth grade. He became a firefighter and remained in Tacoma for the rest of his life.
My Ancestry DNA results mostly corroborate these stories. Genetically, I am mostly British, with Italian and Eastern European tying for second place. However, one curious revelation from my DNA test results is that despite all the family history pointing back to Germany, it appears I am barely German. Only two percent from the Western European region, according to Ancestry. When I asked my grandparents about this, they seemed unperturbed. Referring to his ancestors, my grandpa said, “We all come from somewhere else, even them.”
My grandmother on my father’s side told me that she suspected there to be some Jewish ancestry somewhere in my family line, though she had never been able to confirm it. When I told her that my DNA result indicated that I am five percent Jewish, she smiled and said she considered the matter settled.
My sense of self has always been rooted in white, American culture. I know next to nothing about the cultures of countries in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. If I was dropped somewhere in, say, Slovenia or Croatia I would likely feel as if I were in an alien land, even though a decent chunk of my genetic makeup comes from those places. It is easy to feel separated from other cultures in the world, because they seem too distant to have any bearing on who I am. However, from this little bit of exploration of my background comes a sense of connection to places hitherto unexplored.
For journalists seeking to tell the stories of a diverse, ever-changing world, the quest for a broad framework of self-discovery could be invaluable. This sort of exercise opens one up for the exploration of historical context, both individual and collective. By asking questions about the past, we can discover the way lives intersect and cultures fuse together. Delving into the nuances of my personal history will likely make me more open to the possibility that each person I encounter is much more than they seem. Everybody has their own cultural practices, family beliefs and hidden stories. Through exploration and understanding, journalists can work to fit together the puzzle pieces that make up a diverse society.