Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

Discovering Family History With DNA TestingSince childhood when my maternal grandma put a diary in my hand and encouraged me to write my story, I wondered, “Who am I?” Spending my adult life abroad, where one has to forge a new identity, only magnified that question and made me more curious to find out where I come from. Using DNA testing and search tools like Ancestry.com digging up the family history and skeletons from the past has never been easier.

Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

my family’s geographical origins

To begin, I bought my parents a DNA kit and had them to spit in a test tube. We found out that my mom, on the Olson side, is 95% Norwegian, with a touch of Swedish and English. The McKinzie line on my dad’s side is primarily of Scottish descent, but his maternal lineage also can be traced to England, Ireland and Wales.

I discovered I am the great, great grand daughter of a Civil War veteran and a ship captain lost at sea off the Norwegian coast. My forefathers were teachers, statesmen, merchants, pioneer preachers and Scottish Lords. Long ago as clan chiefs, they owned castles as wealthy landowners; centuries later after immigrating to America, they lost land when crops failed and were forced to rent land as poor tenet farmers.

Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

Eilean Donan Castle – Scotland Highlands

I can claim lineage as one of the First Colonial Families to settle on America soil on the Potomac in Maryland. My family once ruled Scotland’s famous castles – Eilean Donan, Leod, Kincoy, Kinkell and RedCastle – when the Mackenzie Clan reigned as far back as the 13th century. Once the most powerful clan in Northern Scotland, they own land from Ross on the east coast to the Island of Lewis in the west.

Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

Grandpa Mac – 1922

Maps show the McKinzie migration ever westward. In the United States, as primarily farmers, they moved from New England to Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa and finally Oklahoma where my paternal great grandfather became a sharecropper outside of Blackwell. My grandfather broke tradition following his dream to play college football in Illinois, and then became a successful coach at Eureka College and Northern Illinois University.

Though I traced my father’s paternal side back 25 generations, my mother’s side is more complicated. In Scandinavian countries, they traditionally add son or dottar to the father’s name. For example, Ole’s son becomes Olson as a surname. I remain stuck in the 17 century a bit muddled up with Olson, Rosholt, Jacobson lines.

Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

My grandma – Martha Olson

To make things even more complicated, when immigrants became naturalized, they often changed their names. My maternal grandfather arrived in America in 1926 as Gustav Andreas Johansen, but changed his name to Gustav Andrew Olson when he became a US citizen. My maternal grandmother, adopted as a child, adds yet another dimension to my search.

My family history is filled with stories. My father’s maternal great great grandfather, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, hosted Lincoln during his campaign at the family home in Augusta Illinois. According to legend, Lincoln once sat on the same piano stool that I loved to spin on as a child at my grandma’s house.Discovering Family History With DNA Testing

Another of my forefathers fought with French Allies to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War. My great, great grandpa Aaron McKinzie witnessed General Lee’s surrender ending the Civil War when he fought for the Union’s Iowa’s 39th Infantry Regiment.

When I trace my lineage, one thread stands out. My ancestors were resilient. They endured tribal assaults, Spanish flu epidemics, world wars, Nazi Occupation, independence from oppressors and countless clan battles over territory in Scotland. From my hardy Norwegian relatives living above the Arctic Circle to the Mackenzie Clan reigning in the Scottish Highlands, my people had a fighting spirit and will to survive.

Perseverance became part of my bloodline. On bad days, when life feels like a struggle, I look to the stories of my ancestors for strength. Knowing who I am and where I come from gives me courage to keep fighting too. I only wish my grandma was still alive, so I could tell her our story, but her spirit lives on in me.

Are you a pitcher or a saver?

pitcher or a saver?Were we were born with a genetic propensity to be a pitcher or a saver, a hoarder or a heaver? Some people like my sister never let unnecessary items accumulate; others like me have trouble throwing away anything.

While spring cleaning, I finally parted with possessions that had been with me for most of my European life like a bottle of Chanel perfume that I received as a gift in 1979, my first year in France. With my Multiple Chemical Sensitivity I could never wear it, but every time I saw that bottle I was reminded of the kindness of strangers, those Parisians, who first welcomed me to their homeland.

I no longer have storage space for my coffee cup – gifts from family, pitcher or a saver?friends and students – an eclectic collection of ISU, UWSP, Manchester, London, and my all time favorite a cream-colored cup imprinted with a pitcher or a saver?sketch of the United Methodist Church, my dad designed. Some cups mean too much to me to use, so they decorate my mantel like the one with a photo of a former basketball team.

I also save baseball caps from every major sporting event I ever attended and every team I loved. Ditto for those team logo t-shirts.

My kids, young adults now living thousands of miles away, have no desire to keep old scrapbooks, school awards, sports medals, so why do I save them? Why keep the clay mold of a 5 year olds handprint, odd shaped vases, lumpy hand made pottery, a glazed chicken, and dozens of paintings. Silly me, hanging onto old toys like Playmobil and Beanie Babies for the memories they evoke.

pitcher or a saver?Dozens of picture albums clutter our home with old pages falling apart filled with photos of places I no longer remember and people whose names I have forgotten.

I have good intentions. Every time the urge to organize strikes, I buy another beautiful colored folder that then sits empty on a shelf like a heirloom.

But by far my worst vice of all is an obsession with words. I saved cards from my grade school BFF, sketches from college roommates and letters from grandparents. Books spill off my shelves. I have – yes I counted – 86 binders in shades of red, blue, green, purple and orange filled with half-baked story ideas, travel notes, family research, book drafts and kids’ essays. For a writer, words are the hardest possession to part with.

Call me a hoarder, but I am not materialistic driven to buy, buy, buy and accumulate more goods. It’s just that pitching out sentimental, memory-evoking possessions feels like sacrilege. Out, out, out. Gone the memories.

With the advent of technology and information updated every second – text messaging, Instagram, Snapchat – everything changes so fast, and is forgotten even faster.pitcher or a saver?

Could our brains intentionally be wired this way into pitchers and savers? Some minds are designed to discard and downsize to make room for the next generation, while others like me cling to the past to record our passage in time.

I am like the beekeeper tending the hive, honing the busy nest of our lives, gathering the honey of our collective memories.

American Struggles to Understand English in England

You would think that after living in non English speaking European countries for so long, I would feel at home in England, but I felt more foreign there than anywhere. Though technically Americans speak the same language, I had no clue what the Brits were saying. Times are tough when you resort to asking your Frenchman to interpret your native tongue.

“Pot, this is ridiculous!” Gerald said. “They are speaking your language not mine.”

True but in my language potatoes don’t wear jackets, children don’t wear jumpers and no one wears Wellies.

American Struggles to Understand English in EnglandTo clarify the vocabulary, English waiters will ask if you want a jacket (skin) on your potato. Seriously, do say yes because no one does jacket potatoes better than the English. Mine was stuffed with melted Brie, British bacon and cranberry sauce.

Sweaters are what British refer to as jumpers. Sweatshirts are hoodies. Uniforms are kits. And everyone owns a pair of Wellies.

Popularized by British aristocracy for hunting in the early 19th century the Wellington boot, fashioned after the Hessian boot and made of leather, was named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. With the advent of Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization process for natural rubber in the mid 1800s, waterproof rubber Wellies became standard even for the common class and replaced the farmers’ wooden American Struggles to Understand English in Englandclogs.

Ah, Wellies, those ill-fitting, formless, round-toed galoshes you hated wearing in grade school. I would give my right arm for a pair now. In England, it rains cats and dogs and puddles proliferate like rabbits. To be prepared like the English who carry Wellies in the boot of their cars, tourists should pack a pair of Wellies and a brellie (umbrella)on any visit to the UK.

I used to think my British colleagues in Switzerland were dumbing down their language with baby talk to help me understand. Apparently another idiosyncrasy is their tendency to chop off words by ending in ie.

Fortunately, my dear friend now living in Australia explained, “Pressie, (present) brekkie, (breakfast) and ciggie (cigarette) are all just lazy British ways of shortening words.”

It could be worse.

“The Aussies use the same abbreviations, and more besides!” she said. “My fave one is ‘arvo’ for afternoon. I use it all the time now, but with a British accent, which amuses the locals.”

American Struggles to Understand English in EnglandNo one does humor better than the British. The language is full of expressions that make me laugh out loud.

Who else says things like “have a nosy” for a look around or “don’t get your knickers in a knot” when someone is upset?

And can’t you picture a group of gossipy old women having a “chin wag”or a bunch of teens throwing their “knees up” (to party) on the weekend.

But my all time favorite is “fall arse over tit” meaning to tumble head over heels.

Now you understand why an American might need a French interpreter. Visiting England leaves me feeling totally discombobulated and stuck in one giant kerfuffle.

I am so disorientated I may never get home to Switzerland. With all those cars whizzing by on the “wrong” side of the road, I am afraid to cross the street.

Living on Old English Workhouse Grounds

Living on Old English Workhouse GroundsWhen I visited my son and his girlfriend in Ampthill England, I felt like I was stepping into a storybook. The crooked narrow, cobblestone streets lined with thatched huts, red brick homes and tiny walk up shops looked like pages out of a Charles Dickens novel. Even their home, a former caretaker’s cottage, was on the grounds of a stately 2-story brick building, which once served as the Ampthill Union Workhouse. Built in 1835, the old “poorhouse,” where penniless paupers worked for porridge, was laid out in an octagonal hub. The rows ended in 3 story blocks with observational windows over the work yards. Renovated into an expensive apartment complex today residents can relax in an inviting, Living on Old English Workhouse Groundspicture perfect English back garden.

In the past, poorhouses often looked and felt like prisons. Funded by the local parish able-bodied inmates toiled in exchange for food and shelter. Workhouses filled with orphans, unmarried mothers, widows, sick, elderly and vagrants who endured the harsh regime, Spartan conditions, and slept in communal dormitories

Behind the wrought iron entry gate, Nic and Larissa’s brick cottage, the size and shape of a shoe box sits at the front of the grounds. It was divided into a small living area, a kitchen galley, a bedroom, bathroom and a dining room with just enough space for a table of four. Apartments in the main Living on Old English Workhouse Groundsbuilding today would cost a pretty penny, but the cottage rental was a steal.

At night spotlights illuminated ancient trees casting shadows and as I wandered the grounds, my imagination ran wild. I expected to see Oliver Twist dart across the courtyard.

As the wind moaned in the treetops, I could hear echoes of the old nursery rhyme that even American children were weaned on. We grew up listening to our mothers’ lament, “oh no, we will be driven to poor house.”

Anonymous verse from Yorkshire.

Many old workhouse buildings became public assistance institutions and continued to provide accommodation for the ill and elderly. In 1942 The Ampthill Workhouse became St. Georges Hospital, and then later the Cedars Old Peoples Home.

But Larissa and Nic’s new abode, filled with light, laughter and good cheer, showed no sign of its grim past. Warm and cozy, we squeezed around the table enjoying the lovely meal they prepared. I gazed out the window and felt grateful that my family members had steady jobs, roofs over their heads and food on their tables.

In the UK the workhouse era ended officially on April 1, 1930. Fortunately poor houses became a thing of the past, but poverty is not. Many homeless people everywhere in the world sleep in the streets under cardboard boxes, rummage through trash bins for scraps and struggle to survive.

Everyone can offer aid. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Work at a food pantry. Contribute to the local charities.

How do you help the poor in your own communities?

downtown Ampthill

La Maison Cailler -Switzerland Synonymous with Chocolate

Cailler chocolateSwitzerland is synonymous with chocolate and it comes as no surprise that the world’s oldest chocolate maker Cailler is arguably also the world’s best. In ancient times, chocolate, once considered the “elixir of the Gods,” was believed to have magical properties. I agree.

No trip to Switzerland is complete without sampling one the nation’s finest offerings, yet I never toured a chocolate factory until my niece came for a visit. Boy, was I missing out. A trip to a chocolate museum entertains all ages. It is worth it just for the free samples.

The most well known of Swiss chocolates, Cailler claims to be the oldest brand. Cailler produced chocolate in Vevey as far back as 1819 and since 1889 in neighboring Broc where today millions of tourists visit the La Maison Cailler du Chocolat. In 1929 Cailler became part of the Nestle group, but it still functions independently.

The Swiss consume the most chocolate in the world. 5% prefer white, 20% prefer dark and 80% prefer milk chocolate, which is made from treasured 200 year old Swiss secret recipe. In my opinion the darker the chocolate the better and apparently experts agree the higher the cocoa content the better it is for your health.

Cailler chocolateIn 1911 Alexandre-Louis Cailler developed a different process to manufacture a creamier, milky flavored chocolate. Instead of using powdered milk, he took condensed milk from Alpine milk in the Gruyère region to create a milk chocolate with an incomparably smooth, rich milky flavor. To this day, Cailler is the only Swiss chocolate manufacturer to use this method.

While you wait your turn to enter the museum, you can watch through windows where on the floor below the chef leads a class of visitors in making 5 different kinds of chocolate in the chocolate workshop.

For 12 Swiss francs, visitors enter the museum’s historical journey of chocolate’s development through time in multi sensory audiovisual tours. Chocolate originated in antiquity from Mexico’s cocoa bean. In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate to Europe where it was considered taboo until the pope declared it a wholesome drink. In the last century, the French considered it an aphrodisiac and savored tiny cups of divine chocolate silk while in bed.

As part of the Cailler chocolateMaison Cailler experience, you are allowed to touch the cocoa beans, butter, nuts and raw material used to make chocolate. A replica of the conveyor belt used in the factory shows the process of how Cailler’s signature Mini Branches – hazel nut filled logs – are made, cut and wrapped.

The highlight for any sweet tooth is the free sampling at the end. Just like at a chocolate shop, every sort of bar and cream filled chocolate align the glass counters for free sampling from the sweetest to the most bitter. I skipped the white and milk chocolate varieties and made a beeline for the end of the row to savor the dark chocolates. My niece and her friend tasted a piece of every kind of chocolate except the dark ones.

After the tour, you can savor chocolate-based drinks and desserts in the Cailler chocolatecafé. You can also shop for brand souvenirs and Cailler chocolate bars, pralines and famous brands of Femina, Ambassador, and Frigor.

The only problem with unlimited sampling, a gourmet may suffer from what the French call a “crise de fois,” a liver crisis brought on by too much rich food.

European International Schools March Madness

March MadnessAs a basketball aficionado, I miss being in America during the frenzy of the NCAA tournament, but we also have  March Madness during basketball season in European international schools. Every time we hit the road, we enjoy our own form of madness.

Traveling with teens between countries by bus, train, plane and even gondolas in Venice gets crazy. Inevitably someone will forget a passport, misplace a plane ticket, lose a piece of luggage, arrive late for departure or forget a uniform.

For coaches, the journey to and from venues becomes more stressful than coaching those nail-biting basketball games in the tournament itself.

During one trip years ago, my starting point guard left her passport in the pouch at the back of seat in front of her on the plane.March Madness

Another time, due to an electronic glitch, our bus door would not open or close completely. The athletic director in Zurich gave us jump ropes from their PE department and we tied the door closed, crawled over the seats from the driver’s side and rode home shivering as wind and snow blew in from the gap in the door.

Traveling with a group of kids anytime is challenging. They are like those Tamagotchi electronic pets that need to pee, eat and sleep at regular intervals. Wherever we go, someone needs to find a toilet, get a drink or buy a smoothie at the most inopportune moments.

March MadnessOn our trip last weekend, before landing, one middle school girl said, “Every time I land in the Brussels airport, I have to get a smoothie.”

When she asked for permission, Gerald, unaccustomed to travel with teens, said, “Okay.”

Anyone who has ever worked with kids knows that if one student gets a smoothie then everybody gets a smoothie. Sixteen smoothies later, we finally pulled our bags off the conveyor belt in baggage claims. We were ready to be picked up by buses from the host school when another girl cries out, “Oh no, I left my purse at the smoothie stand.”

Once you have exited the arrival terminal, you can’t go back, so she and Gerald ran to the front of the airport’s departure gate. There, security staff insisted you could not re-enter the terminal without a plane ticket. By the time they were finally allowed to access, the purse was long gone.

By far the worst incident happened years ago when I coached in Paris where we often traveled with 4 teams – JV and varsity girls and boys. One time on our return train trip from Vienna, an exhausted guard moved away from his noisy teammates to another car to sleep. However, at some stops on long haul trips, the trains may split off to different destinations. Only after we arrived home in Paris did the coach realize he was missing a player. That poor boy fell asleep in Austria and woke up in Italy.March Madness

Every time we arrived home safely with our teams, I breathe a sigh of relief. We never remember who blew a lay up, shot an air ball or missed a free throw, but we never forget the time we almost missed our flight, lost our passport, rode a broken bus, bought a smoothie in Brussels and all the other hilarious incidents –though not funny at the time – in retrospect made our international travels during European March Madness so memorable.