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Carolyn Abraham in the lap of her brother Conrad, on holiday in the English countryside in 1972. At right her siblings Kevin and Christine and their father, Dudley Abraham.
Carolyn Abraham in the lap of her brother Conrad, on holiday in the English countryside in 1972. At right her siblings Kevin and Christine and their father, Dudley Abraham.

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DNA unlocks family secrets of the Chinese juggler, the enigmatic sea-captain and more Add to ...

The birth of my first child made me see the past through a new lens: how it’s never lost, not completely; we carry it with us, in us, and we look for it in our parents and in our children, to give us our bearings and ground us in the continuity of life. And the past accommodates. It shows off in dazzling, unpredictable ways – a familiar gait, a gesture, the timbre of a voice, a blot of colour along the tailbone. The body has a long memory indeed.

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The mysteries of the past lure many to the maw of genealogy – hours, years and small fortunes devoured tracing the branches of family trees. I had never been one of those people, but now a tempting shortcut had appeared: genetic tests that promised to reveal histories never told or recorded anywhere else.

Written in the quirky tongue of DNA and wound into the nucleus of nearly every human cell are biological mementos of the family who came before us.

And science is finding ways to dig them out, rummaging through our genetic code as if it were a trunk in the attic.

When questions of identity had been with me for so long; when my children might grow up with the same questions; and my parents, with everything they know and all the secrets hiding in their living cells, could vanish in a breath – why would I wait? I imagined the cool blade of science cutting to the truth of us, after more than a century of speculation and denial.

I started asking questions about my family in the late 1970s, after people started asking them of me. I had just turned 7 and we had moved from the Toronto area to the Southern Ontario town of St. Catharines.

Our tidy subdivision must have sprung up in the space age of the 1960s: There was a Star Circle and Venus and Saturn Courts, and in our roundabout of mostly German families, we were the aliens at 43 Neptune Dr. Before we moved in, the Pontellos had been the most exotic clan.

The kids my age would pretend to be detectives investigating versions of crimes we’d seen on Charlie’s Angels. All the girls wanted to play the blond, bodacious Farrah Fawcett character, and when arguments broke out over whether my dark looks should exclude me from eligibility, an interrogation usually followed.

“So where you from, anyway?” one of the kids would ask.

“Mississauga,” I’d say.

“No, really, where are you from?”

“Well, I was born in England – ”

“No, I mean, like, what are you?”

Kids can be mean, but my friends weren’t. Most of them were just curious about a brown girl with a Jewish last name who went to the Catholic school. I was curious too. I wanted to say Italian, like the Pontellos. I wanted freckles and hair that swung like Dorothy Hamill’s. But more than that, I wanted an answer.

“Just tell them you’re English,” Mum would say. “You were born in England.”

“But I don’t look English.”

“Tell them you’re Eurasian,” my father would offer.

“Where’s Eurasia?”

Those conversations left me with the uncomfortable feeling that we had something to hide. My parents never said simply, “We’re this” or “We’re that.” They said, “Tell them this …”

Of course, I knew India had something to do with us, or we with it. My parents were born there. Their parents were born there. My father, my brothers, and I sported year-round tans. We called okra “ladyfingers” and eggplants “brinjals,” and my mother cooked a mean curry.

When I was 4, my parents took my sister and me on a world tour that stopped in Mumbai, and I had strange kid-memories of the place we visited: women on their haunches plucking chickens, a lizard creeping up the wall, red dirt, hole-in-the-floor toilets that seemed designed to make me pee on my feet.

But if I asked, the answer was no, we weren’t Indian, really. We were English, sort of, and Portuguese, probably a little Irish and Scottish, a bit Dutch, and maybe Russian. Luckily, no one mentioned China or Jamaica at the time – what I knew was already enough to inspire panic attacks at school on Heritage Day: Bring a traditional dish from your homeland, the teacher would say. Bring a flag. Wear your native costume.

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