The Power & Basic Lowdown of DNA Genealogy

More often than not, when I tell people that I’m a genealogist and storyteller, the first thing most people think of is that I work for companies like AncestryDNA or 23andMe and process people’s DNA.

That’s fair, considering the number of genetic testing commercials we see on television and online ads these days. This is one of the first introductions many of us have to anything remotely related to genealogy.

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Well, I definitely DO NOT do that. I am more of a paper-trail and storyteller researcher. Finding someone’s family history, their story, using documents and family storytelling. However, DNA testing results have been incredibly useful and sometimes pivotal in my research, helping people to see that they are indeed supposed to be here (#YoureSupposedToBeHere). And, I do know a bit about the basics of genetic testing when it comes to using it for my research.

The Power In The DNA

I remember when I received my first DNA kit, my stomach started to flutter. This was only early 2018, I had been researching in other ways for a while now. But this was different. Stories and papers were one thing, but the body doesn’t lie. What was I going to find out. It took more than a month for me to finally open the packet, spit into the tube and ship back to the company.

My friend was doing it to find out about her ancestral make-up (as she puts it in her own words she is a “mutt”), and I thought, why not. I also didn’t realize that I could also potentially be finding out about more cousins or family members.

DNA testing has come a long way. For starters, it used to be very expensive to get DNA testing done- going to a special lab and getting your blood tested. Today, it’s a simple as spitting into a tube.

I knew that it could take up to 8 weeks, but I still impatiently checked the company’s app daily to get the updates.

In about 5 weeks, I got my results back. Safe to say I wasn’t entirely surprised by the results of my ancestral make up (until the most recent update of the database. See what I mean below in the subsection called “DNA Databases”). But I was shocked to see how many people I was genetically related to all over the world. I don’t recognize many of them. I still have yet to integrate them into my family tree!

But as I see how many people I am related to, I realize truly how interconnected we ALL truly are, and yet share a unique lineage at the same time. How we each really are a piece of Tapestry of History. I was just looking at some of my Ancestry DNA matches, and even myself, I’m stunned to even see that I have not-so-distant relatives still in my own ancestors’ homelands.

Other people I have worked with, this has helped them to find long lost family. It has helped them to connect with a part of themselves that they felt like was lost. For some, it has unleashed unknown (and sometimes unwanted) stories about the family. It has allowed people to find each other and connect to one another. It has unleashed ancestral wounds and caused new bonds to form.

Results tap into something almost vibrational in our bodies when we see the results and the people we’re related to.

How DNA Works

Types of DNA

The 3 main types of DNA that are often tested in the bigger named companies are mtDNA, Y DNA and autosomal DNA.

mtDNA- Known as mitochondrial DNA, this type of DNA only gets passed down from the mother, however, it gets passed down to BOTH daughters and sons (but since only the mother passes it down, the daughter would be the only one to pass it on to her own children).

This type of DNA very rarely mutates or changes between generations, so testing this type of DNA can actually help researchers to recognize the relationship between different populations (such as between Northern Africa and Asia and Europe).

This type of DNA can also help you to see your ANCIENT maternal ancestors known as maternal haplogroups. If you share a maternal haplogroup, you would share the same ancient ancestors.

Y-DNA- This is passed down from the biological father to the biological son ONLY, so biological daughters do not get this from their fathers.

This type of testing can also explore ANCIENT paternal ancestors, but because Y-DNA also mutates more frequently than mtDNA, it can also help in finding genetic matches and how long ago two people shared a paternal ancestor, and testing proposed relationships on the paternal line.

For women doing this testing, if you want to know more about your Y-DNA, have a biological brother (someone who was born with a Y chromosome), a brother’s son, your father or your paternal grandfather tested to learn more about this line of the family. You can learn more about your paternal line this way by adding it to your own DNA results online.

AUTOSOMAL DNA- This type of DNA gets inherited from both parents. You receive 50% from your biological father and 50% from your biological mother. Since you don’t share the exact same 50% with your siblings, this is why you don’t look exactly the same as your brothers or sisters (unless you are identical twins). This is where 22 out of the 23 pairs of chromosomes come from (23 is the general xx or xy chromosome pair which generally determines the sex someone is assigned to at birth).

How Autosomal DNA gets passed down

I’m going to make this as simple as possible!

While Y-DNA and mtDNA are passed down pretty much unchanged between each generation as explained above, autosomal DNA is constantly changing. It undergoes a process called recombination. The DNA each parent inherited from the previous generation literally gets mix and jumbled up. Half of the mixed up DNA gets randomly “chosen” to be passed down to the next generation- either as is or and possibly recombine with the other parent’s DNA and gets passed down to the next generation.

You would share about:

50% of your DNA with your parents and full siblings/your own children

25% with grandparents/grandchildren, aunt/uncle/niece/nephew/half-sibling

12.5% with great-grandparents/children, first cousins, great-aunt/uncle/niece/nephew, half-aunt/uncle/niece/nephew

6.25% with first cousins once removed or half-first cousins

3.125% with second cousins or first cousins twice removed

1.563% with second cousins once removed or half-second cousins

.0781% with third cousins or second cousins twice removed

DNA Databases

For most DNA databases, the results pertaining to the relationship between people, especially with today’s technology is very accurate. But, as genealogists, we’re often urged to use caution when using DNA results for ethnicity estimates for specific countries and regions since these are much less accurate.

They also can often change dramatically from company to company. The ethnicity estimates are based generally on people self-reporting, the human genome and the number of people in the database to compare certain genetic markers with. The results don’t mean they are totally wrong, it just means there is less accuracy with ethnicity estimates. However, a DNA company might have updates in results over time. What I first submitted is now slightly different than when I first submitted.

Many websites (not all) will allow you to take your DNA results from one database and upload it to another database. One person shared that one company had a very different ethnicity results than the other, even when using the exact same DNA result. It’s just something to be mindful of.


While I am not an expert of epigenetics, I didn’t wanted to finish off this blog without discussing this. Epigentics is a study of cellular memory that basically talks about how memories and experiences don’t just live in our minds, but also within the cells throughout our entire body. This can be something that happened to us many, many, many years ago AND it’s also believed that this can be passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes it manifests in emotional or psychological dis-ease, or even physical (like cancer or disease).

Twice in my life I had major abdominal surgery- once for cancer of the kidney and once for a twisted colon. And something internally told me that this was a physical manifestation of something that had happened many generations ago. I didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t mine. I felt like I was letting go of a burden someone in my family tree had been carrying for many generations.

DNA really is like an incredible code of unlocking ourselves. It is definitely a part of the puzzle to understanding who we are. Not just as physically, but relationally, emotionally and, do I even daresay, spiritually.

If this is something you’re interested in doing, here are some resources and companies for ancestral DNA testing. Each company has something different to offer so make sure you do some research of your own. And there are also sales throughout the year as well.

SEPARATIONS & SCANDALS (Part 2): Are The Rumors True?

This is part 2 of 2 of the story. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you may want to as it gives background to part 2. You can read it HERE.

In the wake of the genealogy conference, I was buzzing with a surge of energy. Laurie sent me one of David’s passport applications from 1922 to examine. My eyes fell upon the multi-page tome of documents, alternating between Yiddish and English. full of information on his origins his family in the region of Galicia, his travel plans and stern photograph glaring at me.

What happened to you? My mind whispered to the ghost of David, silently.

The wheels were beginning to spin. An internal pull from my heart led my fingertips to press the “tab” button on my computer. What was revealed over the course of several days blew my mind.


“What happened to Rose and David?” This question laid looming after my grandmother revealed the horror of Rose’s reality. The question echoed like eerie voices from the past; like a mystery that was meant to be uncovered from beyond.

My third cousin, Laurie, and I discussed the possibilities for almost a year, dredging up possible theories both out of the air and based on some of the stories my grandmother shared with us.

Maybe David returned to Europe, left Rose and his children behind and never came back.

Maybe he died between 1925 and 1930 and everything my grandmother and Laurie’s family shared with her was actually hearsay.

Maybe he ran away with another woman and completely changed his name.

My heart at times ached for Rose, my great-great aunt, Laurie’s great-grandmother, my grandmother’s aunt.

I had to find out. I had to know.

With each document unearthed, the scarcely filled binding of the book of Rose began filling up her stories. Page after page; layer after layer. I felt like as I was researching, as we were researching, Rose was able to tell her story. She had the chance to let go of the pain she carried on her back and in her heart, even in generations passed. I felt the anvil of her life being lifted off.

Part of David’s file for his passport application in 1922*

Multiple Passport Applications and Ship Manifests for David: I could picture Rose, heart heavy waiting at home in absence for her husband who went and returned Europe for months at a time, at times visiting his mother and family, at other times travelling.

Census Records, Draft Registrations, Naturalization Documents, and Passport Applications: Bustling from house to house at least 8 times with David and her children between 1905 and 1925. No real foundation of a home. Again, in 1930 with her children the floors of her home were dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, but without David in sight.

Family Stories: My mind reeled as I thought about the stories of abuse and neglect added to the mix.

Census Records & Vital Record: By 1930 she was listed as a widow and even on her death certificate in 1948, her own son, Herman, declared on her death certificate that she was a widow to David. But David was nowhere to be found- no more census records, no U.S. Passport, and certainly no death certificate.

For years, there were so many unanswered questions. Where was he? Why did Rose say she was a widow? What did she tell her children about the disappearance of her husband? Did he actually die or did something else happen?

Then, it occured to me, sometimes “widow” in the census records at that time in history did not mean widowed at all.

With the stigma of divorce so rampant during that time, “widow”, for many women, was better than listing divorce.


My eyes couldn’t believe what I found about David. My heart ached for Rose, for her children.

The last time I was able to see David with his children and Rose was 1925 in the census records. It was the first indication that the family rumors were more than rumors.

The rumors were true. The speculation and the story the family had be telling for decades revealed itself.

While Rose was raising 3 of her children alone in Brooklyn, in 1930, David was married to and living with a woman, Anna and their son Joseph, age 4- the four brothers’ half brother.

The only photograph I have of Rose Field née Polay.**

The only photograph I have of Rose Field née Polay.**

And then, by 1940 (and probably by 1935), David, Anna and Joseph packed their belongings and moved over 3,000 miles to Los Angeles while his other four children remained in New York. He disappeared from his first family without a trace.

How did this happen? How did they meet?

After some more research and more digging, I discovered Anna arrived to the United States for the first time on the same boat and on the same day as David when he returned back from Europe in 1922. I discovered her final destination was Los Angeles. While it’s speculatory, David may have met her on the boat over or may have known her from back in Europe (although their hometowns aren’t very close), and they planned to get married upon arrival in the United States. How they met is not clear, but the fact they were on the same boat made me, and still makes me, wonder.

The tragedy of the man who left his family came to a sudden end. David’s lifeless body was found in his Los Angeles home on 3 June 1949, only two years before his Joseph was to marry. His family finding out he killed himself with barbiturates. I can imagine the feeling and look of horror, the shadow that crept into the room, as Anna and their son Joseph discovered the fate of their husband and father.

Why did David leave? Why did he kill himself? What pain must he have been experiencing?

For now we can only speculate. Perhaps down the read we can learn more about the elusive man named David.

Genealogical research, research for the documents isn’t always so dry and boring.

It gives voice to the stories that were not able to be told.

My great-great aunt Rose’s story now has a voice.

NOTE: David is not biologically related to me, he was married to Rose who is my great-grandfather’s sister. 

*”US Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” digital image, Ancestry ( : accessed 20 September 2018), Passport Application, application 164279, 8 May 1922, David Field; citing NARA Microfilm publications M140, roll 1954.

**Rose Field née Polay photograph, ca. 1905; digital image 2018, privately held by Laurie Liberty née Field [Address Held for Privacy]; Laurie shared a digital copy with, genealogist, Jaclyn Wallach. The photograph depicts Rose standing in a black dress and is cropped from the original photograph which includes David Field and her first-born son George (less than 1 year old).

Why Family History Is Healthy For You (And Children)

Myself with my third cousin, Laurie.

Myself with my third cousin, Laurie.

Cherie Bush giving a presentation at the NYG&B Conference about FamilySearch and the “Do You Know..” study.

Cherie Bush giving a presentation at the NYG&B Conference about FamilySearch and the “Do You Know..” study.

You may or may not know, but the other weekend, I went to the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society's biannual conference in Tarrytown, NY. Not only did I meet some wonderful people, but I also went with a THIRD COUSIN that I met doing my own genealogical research. It was a great way to get to know each other and learn more about our family from our own perspectives. 

I met some wonderful family historians, genealogists, archivists, authors, reps for genetic genealogy companies and some people that I highly look up to. I got to browse old books and newspapers and meet artists. We went to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (I mean as a genealogist, you gotta love a good cemetery, let alone where the Headless Horseman legend took place!) We spent 3 days going to back to back lectures on such a diverse variety of topics, and while for you this may seem boring, I felt like the 3 days went by too quickly. 

But as you know, I see genealogy and storytelling, oh so much more than just names and dates. It can go DEEP. 

One of the things that really touched me during the 3 days was something that was brought up in one of the lectures. FamilySearch International presenter, Cherie Bush, shared an incredible study done by Drs. Marshall and Sara Duke:

They used something called the "Do You Know..." scale in their study with children with disabilities. This scale asks children 20 questions that taps into different kinds of family stories, but also where the children learned these pieces of family history. 

Using the "Do You Know..." scale, their studies showed that when children know more about their family history, the more self-control & sense of self they have, and the higher-self esteem they have. The "Do You Know..." scale was one of the best predictors of children's emotional health and happiness!

Of course, as the researcher I am, I wanted to learn more. :) 

There are many reasons for this. One that really stuck out to me was that when a child knows more about their family, they have a sense of being part of a larger family. They have a "strong intergenerational self," as Dr. Duke says in the New York Times article "The Stories that Bind Us." 

And it's not just the "feel good stories" that bind these generations. It's the narratives that also show a sense of family descension (such as, "we used to have it all, but then we lost everything) or the narrative of both the ups and downs (although this last one is seen is the the most healthful). 

According to this same article, there are other studies done in other fields that show similar results to intergenerational family narratives correlating to a higher sense of self-worth, pride, happiness, etc.

(If you want to learn more, I thought I'd share the article by Bruce Feiler from the New York Time and another article by Dr. Marshall Duke from the HuffingtonPost).

For me, doing genealogical work for myself, asking my family questions, even as an adult, has had some really profound healing for me. It's helped me to let go of collective shame. It's helped me to see I am part of a bigger network of people. Learning stories from my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins has been surprisingly incredible.

To me, this study is another reason why genealogy and storytelling isn't just about names and dates. It's also about deep intergenerational healing at a profoundly deep level. 

If you haven't grabbed my own version of 20-Questions called {Y}our Connecting Conversations to learn about your own family history, you can grab them here!

Keep learning about your ancestors.

Find out why You're SUPPOSED to be here!

PS- Starting Tuesday, October 9, I will be rolling out {Y}our Stories: The Series. Think Humans of NY, but for stories of family, ancestry, lineage and genealogy. If you want to contribute and record your story with me, CLICK HERE.