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.

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

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.

Raclette Party Swiss Favorite Event and Food

When guests arrive at our house for the first time, we always throw a raclette party to give them an authentic taste of Switzerland. Raclette is not only a food; it is an event.

This popular mountain dish, made from the alpine raclette cheese, has been around for centuries. Raclette, recorded in texts from German Swiss convents in 1291, dates back to medieval times. Cow herders used to melt this cheese over campfires when moving cows to and from pastures in the mountains.

Originally for this hearty, peasant meal a large raclette cheese round was heated over the fireplace then poured over potatoes. Hotels and restaurants in the mountains still use this method. Most people living in our area own an electric, tabletop raclette grills, which makes preparing the meal easier.

I love raclette because guests cook their own meal by heating sliced cheese in individual metal trays. The cheese is scraped onto small potatoes. Or it may also be served on bread like we do. Dried meats cured in the mountainous regions, such as beef, Parma hams, and viande des Grisons, can be heated on the grill top and served also. Tiny vinegary pickles and onions always accompany the dish.

The French serve raclette with a Savoy white wine, a Riesling or a pinot gris. According to the locals, one should drink only wine with raclette because water will harden the cheese in the belly creating indigestion. However, I have yet to see someone get sick even from imbibing, bubbly Coca Cola with the raclette meal.

At our house, we never had a guest who disliked raclette; in fact most people love it.

“Oh raclette, love it! Best meal of my life!” said Charlotte, Larissa’s sister who clapped her hands in delight and marveled. “Takes potato skins to a whole new level.”

My family enjoyed this so much on visits to Switzerland that I once hauled a bulky raclette machine across the Atlantic, so they could savor the meal stateside. Fortunately this is no longer necessary. You can order the raclette cheese and the grill from where else but a shop in New Glarus, the mini Switzerland of Wisconsin..

Order from New Glarus.

Imported raclette cheese is expensive. So at our cabin in Wisconsin, we use the excellent local products, the Colby, cheddar, or Swiss from Mueller’s Cheese Factory outlet. Although my French husband would disagree, I find the American cheese also suitable for this dish.

Raclette makes the perfect convivial meal to share on a cold winter night. The piping hot potatoes, heat from the grill and wine will toast your toes and warm your hearts.

Bon appétit!

Hanging Laundry Good for Health

I noticed something missing in America, the clothesline. Hanging clothes outside is great therapy. If more people hung clothes, doctors would be out of business. It’s good for achy muscles, stiff joints and stress related illnesses. Bend, reach, ssstttttretch. Breathe. Inhale, pick up the jeans from the basket, and exhale as you pin garments on the line. Hanging laundry forces you to slow down. It’s mindless, which gives you time to focus on the world around you.

As I hang laundry in my little yard in Switzerland, I admire Mont Blanc, a white peak sticking up above a jagged, gray mountain line, behind a shimmering blue lake. Granted not everyone has a view of the Alps, but no matter where one lives, there is beauty to behold – yellow daffodils, emerald lawns, pink cherry blossoms.

I keep old-fashioned wooden clothes pins in a pin bag loving stitched by my mom. Although my son never used pins; he had his own technique. He would fling clothes from the washer directly on to the line. On windy days, I used to pick up my boys’ boxers from my neighbors’ yards on my walk home from school.

I’ve never owned clothes dryer. In Europe, they used to cost a small fortune. They are so tiny, a pair of socks, two t-shirts and three boxers would fill them. Washing machines, also compact, make laundry a daily chore, but it keeps me fit. I haul clothes up and down 24 stairs from the bedrooms to the basement. So my FitBit is always happy.

Every time I do laundry, I think how lucky I am now. When I first moved abroad, I washed clothes in the bathtub on my hands and knees. Then I hung tops, shorts, and socks on furniture to dry.

When first married and living in Paris, my sweat suits waltzed on the wrought iron railing from my balcony overlooking the town square. After our daughter was born baby clothes hung from a rack above the tub. Onesies fell on my head every time I took a bath.

I had been married 15 years before I owned a clothesline and a yard to put it in. Now I have one of those lines that spin and I love watching pants and shirts twirl in the wind. At the end of the day, while folding clothes I enjoy the comforting ritual, seeing the sun slink behind the mountains in a golden glow. While gazing at the view, I daydream unless a family member shows up to help, then we talk. Hanging clothes together helps us stay connected.

Better yet, keeping clothes clean gets me out of the house and away from the kitchen. Some fathers put up Christmas lights in July when they want to get away from the kids, I hung laundry to escape from the daily demands of motherhood.

If they still make clothes lines over in America, you should buy one. It’s a wise investment for your health. You’ll feel better in a couple of days, once you get back into that rhythm. Bend, stretch, breathe. Just what the doctor ordered.

Terror Strikes the Heart of London

My son landed in London on March 22, the same day that another mad terrorist drove a car into pedestrians walking across the Westminster Bridge leaving 40 wounded and 4 dead including an American. Fortunately our son called before the attack to say he that he arrived at his British girlfriend’s home where her family too was safe. But my relief was short-lived, replaced by a sickening dread that I have come to know too well.

Berlin, Brussels, Madrid, Paris, now London capitals of long standing democracies are targets of terrorism again. Each time it happens I feel a renewed sense of horror.

When will one of my friends or loved ones be caught in the crossfire of evil by innocently standing at the wrong place at the wrong time?

When you are part of an international community living abroad you will have friends in nations’ capitals that are in closer proximity than my families homes in Chicago, Cleveland, and Minneapolis.

A year to the day of Brussels’ airport and metro bombings, terror strikes the heart of a western democracy again. A group of French high school students- 3 of the injured – were among the tourists admiring the Westminster Abbey housing English parliament, one of the oldest symbols of democracy in the world. I have visited European capitals with students on similar educational field trips that teach art, history, language and culture far better than any textbook could. I can imagine the shock and fear of the students and their families.

Even as nations beef up security, the task seems insurmountable. Mere days prior to the London attack, pandemonium broke out in Paris’ Orly airport when a French born terrorist held a gun to a soldier’s head inside the terminal. The gunman was killed before any civilians were injured, but as the airport’s south terminal was evacuated, terrified travelers were left stranded outside in the rain.

Governments issue states of emergency, heighten vigilance and tighter security, but how can anyone prevent an attack in a free society?

Each time another assault happens, we grow more hardened. But I will never resign to a world of terror. Though each attack leaves me a more saddened and anxious, outraged and impotent, I will continue to leave my house, walk in public places, visit capitals and travel by plane.

So I can offer no easy answers to curb the reign of terror of the 21st century, but I do know what doesn’t help.

Our leaders must stop spewing invidious words and taking discriminatory actions against our own citizens by revoking hard fought laws that guarantee civil rights. We must foster mutual respect with our allies and open the doors to dialogue with our enemies by keeping the lines of communication open between countries. And we must do more at home to integrate our alienated youth in society.

There are no easy answers and I am not sure how to accomplish this daunting task, but I do know it begins with tolerance with respect for other countries and cultures. Terror will only escalate by having leaders whose rhetoric fuels fear and hatred.

We must reach out in solidarity. Violence – whether in the streets of Chicago or Baghdad, London or Berlin, Istanbul or Brussels – destroy a piece of all of us.

To ensure the future of humanity we must stand on higher moral ground. Always.

London my heart mourns with you.