My Lithuanian great-grandparents, Sylvester and Victoria Dudenas, with their children, Lillian, John, Pearl (my grandma), and Walter in May 1939.
In March 2010, NBC premiered the genealogy documentary series, Who Do You Think You Are?, which features celebrities who go on a journey to trace parts of their family trees. As someone with three sets of great-grandparents who immigrated to America at the turn of the twentieth century, I was immediately hooked. I was spellbound by the mystery and intrigue as famous actors and musicians traveled both domestically and internationally to trace the histories of their ancestors and uncover long-buried family secrets.
The revelations from these journeys ranged from peculiar to fascinating to shocking. For instance, Sarah Jessica Parker discovered that her tenth great-grandmother was condemned as a witch at the Salem Witch Trials. Brooke Shields investigated her father's royal past and learned that her paternal grandmother was an Italian princess whose brother married into the Spanish royal family. And Susan Sarandon was shocked to learn that her grandmother—who abandoned Sarandon's mother at the age of two—got married and had a baby in her early teens and later married both her second and third husbands while still married to her first. Sarandon's mother was a bigamist.
Another popular series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., premiered on PBS two years later and followed a similar script. In each episode, celebrities are presented with a "book of life" that is compiled with information researched by professional genealogists, which often included the use of DNA testing. The findings were comical, ironic, and at times, disturbing. Bill Maher learned he is related to his political nemesis, Bill O'Reilly, Larry David discovered he is related to Bernie Sanders, Ginnifer Goodwin's grandmother developed a morphine addiction due to syphilis, and Ben Affleck's ancestors owned slaves.
My dad, Joseph, and his older brother, John, in 1946.
With such mixed findings, it's a wonder anyone—much less a celebrity—would want to go on a popular TV show and risk being presented with evidence that their great-grandparents were bank robbers, or worse yet, axe murderers. But what does all this information really mean in the greater scheme of things? Is Brooke Shields somehow superior to the rest of us because she's related to royalty? Is Ben Affleck suddenly a bad person because he descended from slave owners?
I took a deep dive into my own family's history in 2012 after I couldn't find my mom's recipe for stuffed cabbages. When I turned to Google to find a replacement for Nana's delicious holubky, I ended up on several different Slovak cultural websites, which ultimately led me to Ancestry.com. So began my months-long binge on the genealogy website where I found census records, draft registration cards, death certificates, and ship manifestos containing the names of my great-grandparents. I began to build my own family tree and studied the trees of distant relatives, who had shared theirs to the site. In doing so, I discovered that my best friend is actually my fifth cousin! Since sixth grade, Stacy and I had always wondered if we were related since her last name was the same as my grandmother's maiden one. Our families always assured us there was no connection, but little did they know, we share the same fifth great-grandfather who immigrated to America from Germany in the mid 1800s. Is this the reason we get along so well? Does our shared DNA explain why we can spend five hours on the phone talking about everything and nothing?
Stacy and I in Savannah, Georgia in May 2010.
I find genealogy both fascinating and fun. I was amazed when I saw the names of my great-grandparents, Stefan and Maria Pastirik on a ship manifesto from 1905. I had no idea they had changed their last name from Pastirik to Pasterick, although it was undoubtedly an attempt to hide their Eastern European ethnicity. Immigrants to America were often treated like second-class citizens at the turn of the twentieth century, so they were probably eager to assimilate. I was also surprised that my great-grandfather, Sylvester Dudenas, registered for the World War II draft even though his advanced age did not require it. It made me wonder about his motivation and gave me the impression that he must have been a dutiful man who deeply loved his adopted country.
I have had a very positive experience tracing my family's past, and there's still so much left to be discovered. I still don't know anything about the lives my great-grandparents led before they boarded a ship to America, and like Ben Affleck, I could someday discover that my ancestors had a dark past. The only way to find out is to hire a professional genealogist in Slovakia and Lithuania to continue my investigation. But do I need to? It's unlikely that my ancestors descended from Russian royalty or that my great-great-grandfather was a famous scientist who taught Marie Curie. And even if those facts came to light, they wouldn't have any impact on my current life or say something profound about my true potential. It's more probable that I descended from serfs, my great-great-grandmother was a prostitute, and I achieved my own measure of success in spite of it all.
My children, Ethan and Morgan, with Stacy's adorable girls, Reena and Maya, in July 2017.
I'm perfectly content knowing the names and origins of my great-grandparents and am grateful for all the family traditions they passed down to me, mostly in the form of delectable ethnic dishes like holubky, halušky, koláče, and potato pancakes. I still plan to travel to Slovakia and Lithuania one day and may even see if I can find out which villages my family came from, but I'm not interested in unearthing any long-buried family secrets. Whether I'm related to Catherine the Great, Boris Pasternak, or Attila the Hun makes no difference to me. The accomplishments or crimes of my distant ancestors don't say much about who I am today. The same is true of Brooke Shields and Ben Affleck. Sharing DNA with a particular person does not guarantee a life of greatness or failure. We are all unique individuals capable of charting our own courses and can choose to embrace or reject our family legacies.
As for me, I've embraced my Slovak and Lithuanian ethnicities and enjoy preparing my grandmothers' recipes for my own children—mostly because these food traditions remind me so much of the people who raised and loved me. And my months-long binge on Ancestry.com was not only fascinating, it inspired me to write a novel where I imagined the lives of my great-grandparents who immigrated to America to work in the steel mills and coal mines of Western Pennsylvania. That deep dive into my family's past led me down a path I never expected and helped me uncover a hidden talent for writing. As for my long-lost fifth cousin, Stacy, knowing that we share the same DNA doesn't make me love her any more. Our friendship has deepened over the last thirty-five years, and I doubt our shared ancestors have anything to do with it. It's trust, respect, honesty, loyalty, and love that bind us together. We've celebrated each other's joys and cried on each other's shoulders more time than I can count. Stacy's always been family to me, and I don't need DNA evidence to prove it.
My debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released on September 21, 2021 and will be available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and most major book retailers.
A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released by She Writes Press in September 2021. Visit www.tammypasterick.com to learn more.