Several weeks ago on the kitchen table under the normal debris of life — a stack of unopened mail, bills to be paid, newspapers, a couple magazines, books — I unearthed two small boxes that I’d nearly forgotten about. They were two DNA kits — a Wisdom Panel doggie kit for my rescue guy, Jackson; and one for me from Ancestry.com.
Jackson came to me via a long-time high school buddy and Facebook friend who posted his photo online. He was rescued from a negligent dog owner in Yakima, so I phoned Starla and asked her to drive over to see what she thought. She sent the most adorable video I’d ever seen of a tiny four-pound bundle of energy trying to keep up with a crowd of mature pitbulls, retrievers and German Sheppards. I couldn’t resist his crazy energy and indomitable lovability.
I picked him up on my birthday in the middle of October last year — which is what some in the adoption world call his “gotcha day.” He was reported to be about six months old and was part of a six-pup litter who all had parvo virus — he was the sole survivor. His litter-mates looked like the standard Heinz 57 mix — pups of all different sizes, fur colors, and confirmation. He is obviously some version of long-haired Dachshund, but there are aspects of both his personality and his appearance that seemed to defy that neat categorization. Others had suggested he was part Havanese, part Maltese, maybe part terrier, part-something. But I’ve been curious all along about the “something.” So I ordered the DNA-for-dogs kit.
As for me, on my father’s side we’ve always said we were Pennsylvania Dutch, which we now know is German. When settlers in the broad U.S. territory of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Ohio were asked where they’d come from, they said, “Deutschland” which was mistranslated at Dutch. (From Wiki, “The German term Deutschland, originally diutisciu land — ‘the German lands’ — is derived from deutsch, cf. dutch, descended from Old High German diutisc ‘popular,’ i.e. belonging to the diot or diota ‘people’, originally used to distinguish the language of the common people from Latin and its Romance descendants.”) I hadn’t thought much more about the heritage on my dad’s side than to notice that the food from the Colmar-Strasbourg region, where France adjoins German, seemed awfully similar to dishes my grandma Gable used to make.
On my mother’s side, we’d been told we had English and Scottish ancestors who came to the U.S. via Canada. My mother’s maiden name was Harmon, but very recently we discovered a skeleton in the family closet: granddad’s mom changed her name to Harmon from O’Hara after being left by her Irish hubby. I guess she didn’t want to be considered an Irish widow, so she chose something that sounded more British.
At any rate, one quiet Sunday morning I decided the time was right to make our DNA kits operational. I swabbed two little bristly brushes between Jackson’s upper lip and gums and packaged them up. Then I spit several times into a vial. I put both of these samples in the mail on the same day, in sort of a family ritual of discovery.
The results came in last Friday. There were surprises on both fronts. First of all, I discovered that though Jackson is 50 percent long-haired Doxie and 25 percent short-haired Doxie (no surprises there), he is 25 percent miniature Poodle. This accounts for the fact that his brain is wired for mischief. He’s got a lot of power packed into that little rascally head. Border Collies and Poodles are right up there as the two smartest canine breeds. And now I’ve found I have a little Doxie character who inherited some of those smarts.
This means he’s a small bundle of big trouble. If I happen to be missing my wallet, say, or one sock in a pair, or a favorite pen, I now know that I need to start by looking under the sofa — a place I can barely reach my hand and arm under but that Jackson navigates with ease. In the Jackson-zone under the couch — more or less his “clubhouse” — I usually also find pinecones, half-chewed razor clam shells, bits of Kleenex, or a chewed up New Yorker submissions postcard. When I drop something attractive to him, he is Johnny-on-the-spot; grabs it running full-speed and scoots under the sofa before I can even begin to bend down.
Then, of course, he has me trained to loudly open the treat bag so that we can “make a trade” for said object.
His poodleness may also explain his tendency to Diva-dom. (I understand that “Divo” is the truly correct male equivalent, but somehow Diva seems more appropriate.) Jackson has long soft feathers of a fetching red on his legs and tail. His ears are wildly glamorous things that flop backwards in the wind and have a certain je ne sais quoi. And, especially noticeable when I walk behind him on a trail or the beach, he has a distinctive swing of his compact and swishy male haunches.
OK, then there’s me. As it turns out, I am much more Heinz 57 than little Jackson, who has merely been elevated in his heritage with the addition of poodle elegance. As for me, I would not have enough red stick pins to put on the map to pinpoint my ancestors.
One of my friends, who recently got results from Ancestry.com, announced at a dinner last week that she was 98 percent solidly European. Bravo. Here’s my dizzying formula: 49 percent Western Europe: Belgium, France Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein. 16 percent England, Scotland, Wales. Nine percent Ireland, Wales, Scotland. Six percent Spain and Portugal. Six percent Italy and Greece. Five percent Scandinavian: Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Then a miscellaneous portion of Eastern European: Poland, Slovakia, Czech; and, finally, Finland, Russia, and European Jewish.
Either my relatives slept around a lot or moved a lot around or both. How do I feel about this revelation of my DNA heritage? I might say it confirms my feeling of being a citizen of the world, a person comfortable in and curious about many cultures. Truthfully, I don’t think it changes much about how I understand who I am, except perhaps to be reminded once again that it’s a small world after all.