All my relations, Part 3: DNA

by Wolf Pascoe on July 13, 2011

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?


family childrenThe wondrous news about Rashi, the Maharal of Prague, Hillel, and King David enlarged my reputation in the greater family. I got calls from distant cousins wanting a copy of the book. I was a genealogist now, though to be sure, the book wasn’t really a book. It was more a collection of charts, including the miraculous chart from Israel, three-hole punched and bound at Kinkos. (Smashwords had yet to be invented.)

One new-found cousin, a man named Jonas who worked for the New York Department of Records, was particularly impressed with my work. He had access to many documents. He was a Pascoe, although our exact relation, which went back to the town with the unpronounceable name, was uncertain.

Jonas sent me a cornucopia of evidence: a photograph of his grandfather sitting next to my grandfather at the meeting of the town society in 1938; the passenger manifest of the ship my grandfather took to New York; my grandfather’s death certificate; my father’s birth certificate.

Jonas was sure it was only a matter of time before we would crack the code and pinpoint our exact relationship. One day he had a brainstorm.

“Let’s send in our DNA,” he said, “And see how it matches up.”

liner aquitaniaIt had been bothering me that, despite the fact that I now could trace my ancestry to Rashi, and through him to Hillel and King David, I still couldn’t penetrate the mysteries of the unpronounceable town in the Carpathian Mountains, the fount of all Pascoes. For example, I still couldn’t substantiate the old family legend that my Aunt Mary and Uncle Saul (my father’s brother) were third cousins.

My Aunt Mary, whose maiden name was Pascoe, had a nephew from her side of the family. His name was Norman Pascoe, and I had known him, through my Aunt, for many years. Presumably, we were fourth cousins.

“Let’s ask Norman for his DNA as well,” I said. “That should shed some light.”

“Brilliant,” said Jonas.

The test analyzed Y-chromosomal DNA. Y-chromosomes are passed from father to son, just like a last name. Recently, a man living in rural England was discovered to have the same Y-DNA as a 5,000-year-old man found preserved in a nearby peat bog–his direct ancestor.

Presumably, Jonas’, Norman’s, and my Y-DNA would match. The technology wasn’t precise enough to tell the exact degree of kinship–say, whether second or third or fourth cousin, but at least it would document a relation between us, and affirm the consanguinity of my aunt and uncle.

We mailed off test tubes containing tissue scraped from the inside of our mouths. We waited weeks for the laboratory results. One afternoon, Jonas called.

“It’s confirmed,” he said. “We’re all cousins! Norman and I are an exact match.”

He emailed the report. Norman and Jonas had identical Y-DNA. But mine was nothing like theirs.

“My DNA doesn’t look like it matches yours,” I said.

“Sure it does. It’s the same in two places.”

“Yeah, but not in the other places. We could just be two random guys.”

DNA double helixIt took a day for the news to sink in. Norman and Jonas were Pascoes. I wasn’t. I might have been my father’s son, I might have even been my grandfather’s grandson, but somebody recently in my direct male line, whether through adoption, illegitimacy, or perhaps because he took his wife’s name when he married (a common practice), had the wrong Y chromosome, and wasn’t a Pascoe. That non-Pascoe Y chromosome had been passed to me.

I was devastated. Was I really Wolf’s grandson? Was I my father’s son? My parents were both gone. My sisters could shed no light.

I had one, tantalizing clue. In the year before her death, my mother and I had grown closer. We had a few long, frank talks. During one of these, she looked at me and said, “There are secrets I will take with me to my grave.”

What did she mean? She never mentioned it again. What was I going to do now? Exhume the bodies of my father and grandfather and test their Y-DNA to see if it matched mine?

“I’m a pretender,” I said to Jonas. “I’m probably not related to Hillel or the Maharal.”

Jonas laughed. But after that, we corresponded less and less, though he became close to Norman.

“Then we’re not descended from King David?” my sister said.

“You could be. I’m not. I’m illegitimate. Maybe you’re my half-sister.”

Hundreds of hours of work had come down to a few missing base pairs. I had seen, in the marvelous chart going back to the fourteenth century, the lining of the world. Except it wasn’t. Not my lining, anyway. My lining was in those missing base pairs, a little joke the universe had reserved for me.

The uncertainty surrounding paternity is why, according to the Talmud, Jewishness is matrilineal—passed down through the mother, not the father. The mother is the surer bet.

I lost my appetite for genealogy. I gathered my family’s information and tucked it away in a closet of my hard drive, where it rests today. It might as well be in the closet of the Cairo synagogue. I don’t look at it.

And now there’s Nick, who came along years later. He’s also not a Pascoe, but a wanderer such as I, with DNA gathered from the four winds.

We could be cousins.
. . .



This is the third post of a three-part series.

All my relations, Part 1: Unpronounceable Town

All my relations, Part 2: Scroll



The Eve Hypothesis – Does all human DNA trace to one woman in Africa 200,000 years ago?
. . .


Any thoughts about DNA and cosmic jokes? I invite, bestir, and exhort you to add your comment below. I always respond here.


Three things you can do if you love this blog.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

carole July 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm

great piece. But I am sorry for your letdown….. That wandering Jew thing… it’s pandemic! we could start our own tribe of DNA untrace-ables. Welcome to my clan.


Wolf Pascoe July 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Thanks, I’ll hold off for now. I might discover I’m not even descended from Eve.


BigLittleWolf July 13, 2011 at 3:11 pm

What a journey of discovery you’ve described, Wolf, including its highs and lows. You still have a mystery on your hands – the question is how and when you can get closer to resolving it.

And elegant though it is to retrace back through the centuries, aren’t we all truly connected when we choose to be? Aren’t you and Nick as connected as if you shared the Y-chromosomal DNA?


Wolf Pascoe July 13, 2011 at 4:24 pm

I believe no man is an island, entire unto itselfe.


David July 13, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I’m unclear. Are you saying that this process led you to conclusive knowledge that you were adopted?


Wolf Pascoe July 13, 2011 at 4:22 pm

No. Only that my patrimony is ambiguous.


Alameda July 13, 2011 at 11:41 pm

In a certain language the proverb goes: don’t tell me where you come from or who you are, tell me what you have done.


Wolf Pascoe July 14, 2011 at 12:03 am

Ah. I feel better!


Barbara S. July 14, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Ditto Alameda! What matters most of all is what we do with our lives. Even though I can get obsessed with genealogy, all the names and dates, I keep in mind that even the ones I haven’t found names for yet lived through “historic” times. None of mine are famous (some infamous, but that’s another story 🙂 but I can understand how you were disappointed with the test results. I have a cousin who, although adopted, has doggedly traced our family history. She feels it’s her own, no matter what her blood says. And you know probably better than anyone that family isn’t bound by blood.


Wolf Pascoe July 15, 2011 at 11:52 am

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.


Charlie July 15, 2011 at 2:58 am

Whether we can name them or not, one thing is absolutely certain: all of us—without exception—are descended from our ancestors. Period.


Wolf Pascoe July 15, 2011 at 11:43 am

Truer words were never. Period!


Sirena July 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Wel, that’s a fascinating plot twist, especially your mother’s secret that she took to her grave. Along the same lines as previous comments, you’re still the same Wolf Pascoe, although I was rooting for descendence from Atilla the Hun. We love you no matter who you were related to 5000 years ago.


Wolf Pascoe July 18, 2011 at 12:56 pm

The next post is about Atilla the Hun. Sort of.


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