Digging out roots of family tree uncovers unexpected treasure

Lasha Morningstar

WE ARE ONE

August 17, 2015

Doctors scratched their heads in bewilderment as they tried to puzzle out why a young female relative kept dashing to the biffy.

The woman scanned the relatives she knew in search of any genetic history that would let the medics understand what was happening to her. Nothing.

Then she mentioned it to me. A lightbulb moment happened to me days later.

Aunt Connie!

I recalled family stories of how she was hospitalized as a teenager for a year with this chronic condition. Her family was incredibly wealthy so the private hospital room - no medicare then - was not a problem. The only advice the doctors gave to her family was keep her on a bland diet and no stress.

The diet was followed and Connie was enrolled in the structured world of Toronto's Loretto Abbey. An exquisite artist, she nevertheless followed the diet regime throughout her life that would today classify her as anorexic.

Armed with Connie's genetic history, the ailing young woman and her doctors were able to pinpoint what was causing her so much grief and prescribed a medicinal protocol that keeps her working and enjoying life.

Certainly medical conditions are one reason for knowing our roots.

But what about the delicious delight in discovering ancestors who went before us centuries ago? For some, branches of the family tree are kept secret as though today's prim and proper people are ashamed of those distant twigs.

My father, an aerospace engineer, rarely spoke to me. So when he did, I would listen up. Several times during my childhood, he looked at me and said. "You must be a throwback."

As a little kid, I had no idea what that meant, just that, given his tone of voice, he did not think that was good.

AVOWED RACIST

Father was big on genetics and, to my shame, was an avowed racist, referring to newcomers to Canada as "DPs" (displaced persons.)

Yet he proudly proclaimed his Irish roots. Indeed, his ancestry did originate in Ireland and a too-many-greats-to-count grandfather who immigrated to Canada in 1815.

What Father did not tell us was that ancestor, a chief factor for the Hudson's Bay Company, married a beautiful woman named Eleanor Thomas. Why didn't he tell us? Probably because she was the daughter of an Aboriginal chief and was Métis. Part of her roots came from the Ojibway and Cree nations.

They had one son, the offspring from which my father, and therefore me, claim genetic heritage.

Hints of this came up when Mother once told me she "suspected there is Indian" in me and once brought the subject up with her mother-in-law. Gramma said, "Hush up. We don't talk about it."

Again, as a little kid, I did not know what it meant, but like all kids who hear words they don't understand, I stored the conversation in my deepest memory.

SEARCHING FOR GENES

It wasn't until recent years that I began to wonder what genes were dancing around in my body and psyche.

When I traced my Father's heritage back and discovered Eleanor Thomas, I was astounded, delighted, fascinated. I am aware of the crime of appropriation committed against the Aboriginal people. But I am secretly proud of whatever genes I have been bequeathed by Eleanor.

It has been an intriguing journey. I always wondered why being in the wild soothes my soul and lets me feel the oneness of life. I crave solitude. Maybe I owe Eleanor a debt of gratitude for that.

Each of us is unique. Each draws from life experiences and often-forgotten genetic makeups.

Our world is harsh, judgmental. A major line of defence is to understand who, what and why we are who we are.

That strength also gives us the understanding to respond to our spiritual hunger and roots.

CATHOLICISM RENOUNCED

Baptized a Presbyterian, confirmed an Anglican by my non-churchgoing parents, I floundered spiritually. Catholicism was never considered because that long ago Irish grandfather quarreled with his priest, renounced his faith and had his son harvest logs to build a church - Anglican.

Finally God opened my soul's door and guided me to Catholicism. When I called relatives in Toronto to tell them my great news, their only response was to tell me I would not be able to be buried in the family plot in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Big whoop!

Certainly, one day I shall track down the maternal side of my heritage. Right now I just want to celebrate Eleanor Thomas.

(Lasha Morningstar lasha@wcr.ab.ca)