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How technology unlocked my family tree and changed my understanding of myself

Commentary: Today's services are primed to help you figure out where you come from.


There are some things that a DNA kit can't tell you. 

Getty/Eric Ba

When I was in the fourth grade, I "interviewed" my Grandpa and Nana for a class project. I loved hearing their stories, but I hated homework. Twenty years later, after they both passed away, I found the old transcript in a box when I moved. Through tears, I read the silly questions my younger self had asked: Where did you go to school? What was your first job?


My maternal great grandparents.

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Despite finding this long-lost gem, it was difficult upon revisiting it not to regret all the questions I didn't get a chance to ask. I didn't ask Grandpa about how he felt about quitting school to go to work around age 14. I didn't ask Nana about how she wasn't able to inherit her family home in Germany after her father passed away because she was a woman. On the other side of the family, I didn't ask Grandma Dottie about her time with the New York Metropolitan Opera. And I still don't know anything about Pa George's time as the mayor of Marshall, Michigan. 

Still, I tucked the precious transcript safely away, in fear that it would be the only thing outside of old stories that I would have to connect with my roots. Little did I know that by 2020, we would have a suite of technology services that would teach me more about not only my grandparents but their grandparents, too -- giving me a new way to understand myself. 

Seeking out information and interacting with your history is a valuable endeavor that lets you get beyond secondhand stories, and discover the root of your roots. And the seemingly boundless tech services now available at your fingertips (or mouth swabs) can get you pretty close. 

My family history journey started on, where I built a family tree of both my mother and father's sides. When the site uncovered new information and potential family members, "leaves" would start populating on my tree. I didn't think it would be as exciting as the dramatic commercials had made it seem -- but it kind of was. 


Pa George, my paternal grandfather. 

Shelby Brown/CNET

Ancestry's database turned up both of my grandfathers' draft cards from World War II, photos of stern-looking great-great-grandmothers in bonnets and floor-length skirts, shots of relatives from the 1800s adorned with vests and pocket chains, and even the name of the ship that brought my father's Scottish ancestors to America. 

Ancestry also helped me understand the resilience and courage of my maternal great-grandmother. After her husband died in 1938, she carried on bravely with my grandfather and his brothers -- ages 18, 19 and 24 -- in South Dakota. In 1940, barely over the loss of her husband, she was watching her sons register for the draft. 

As I dug deeper into the family photo albums and boxes at my parents' house, I turned to Google Lens, the search engine's image-recognition technology. The app is helping me narrow down German estates that are still open to visit in Stadtallendorf and Hessen that my family might've lived in. 

The next step in my family history journey was a DNA testing service. I sent samples to both AncestryDNA and 23andMe to see if my heritage actually matched up to the stories I'd been told, and if there was any more to learn. 

Both services require a saliva sample and analyze your DNA to infer where your family originated from, as well as relationships with other users and health reports. 

I wasn't too surprised by my DNA origins, according to the kits: Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England. Every region is broken down into smaller ones with descriptive blurbs about what life was like around the time my ancestors might've lived there. Even though the descriptions weren't specific to my family, they helped unfreeze the black-and-white photographs and gave me some context for the time period.

Both kits also flagged other close relatives, and gave me the option to contact them. I could message my maternal aunt and my mother's cousin out west through the app. While my aunt is just a phone call away, I may decide to connect with my second cousin and see what more I could learn about my grandfather from her.  


Nana, probably around the mid 1930s.

Shelby Brown/CNET

My childhood memories of my maternal grandmother are tinged with bits of German. 

"My Liebling," Nana would say with a smile as she smoothed my hair. "Mein Schatz." 

Her slight frame, impeccable manners and prompt tea times, however, didn't prevent her from exclaiming "Prost!" (cheers) whenever my sister or I burped too loudly, and the rare curse word (in either language). 


My Oma (left) and Nana (right).

Shelby Brown/CNET

As I sifted through the photos later in life, I found that all of the notes written on the back were in German as well. The next step on my family history journey was clear: I needed to learn some German.

I downloaded Duolingo, an app I'd solely used for Spanish and for school in the past. As I worked through the basics -- nouns, pronouns, greetings, introductions -- I wondered what it would be like to have been able to speak to Nana in her native language. Even though I can't have that, it felt like something connected inside me. Speaking the language she spoke was one more way I could keep her memory alive.

In the quiet moments of lockdown, I find myself wondering how my grandparents would have reacted to technology, were they still alive today. Grandpa had a sharp mind for crossword puzzles. When I'd show him what my first prepaid Nokia camera phone could do back in the early aughts, he'd peer over his glasses, chuckle as if to say "What'll they think of next?" and go back to his puzzle. Imagine if he had been able to see the iPhone 11 or the Galaxy Z Flip


Grandma Dottie on the radio in Michigan.

Shelby Brown/CNET

Nana did 99% of her shopping by landline, with catalog pages meticulously dog-eared and an item or two circled in pencil. She might've liked Amazon Prime. She'd probably curse in German and disappear into the kitchen if I told her about Facebook. And I have no doubt that Pa George and my Grandma Dottie, the social butterflies of the family, would've cultivated an active, wholesome presence on Facebook. 

There are aspects of my family history that no app or service could've told me about. It wouldn't have turned up the show poster of Grandma Dottie headlining in Hello Dolly. The black and white photo of a young Pa George in his study, brow furrowed in concentration as he pored over paperwork. 

But it's still easy for me to get lost in the digital investigation. I'll text my parents at odd hours, asking for confirmation about a location or event with little context. It's become a way for us to connect and learn more together, which has taken on a new meaning now that we can't visit each other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For me, the most difficult part of coronavirus lockdowns has been not seeing my parents and sister -- and admitting to myself that I didn't visit them enough when the world was open for the taking. But we can still uncover our roots together, and take comfort in the knowledge that our ancestors have been through tough times, too. 

So now, when my family's faces cram into the phone screen for a video chat -- all smiles, laughter and "how's it going?" even though we all know the answer -- I don't wish for a time before, even if it would mean I could ask my grandparents more questions. I also don't want to plan for the time ahead. Now is enough.