23 Jan 2019
It started as something of a lark – with me spitting in to a tube. It turned out quite differently. That spit took me across oceans, continents, and generations – reminding me of my mother’s Neapolitan proverb, “If you spit into the sky, it falls in your eye.”
It made me wonder anew about what it must have been like for my forebears: coming to America from Italy and beyond in the early 1900s – knowing no one, having nothing and not speaking a word of English. It made me think about what makes America great and all that goes into that greatness: melting pot ingredients like the blood, sweat, tears, hopes and dreams of immigrants who helped make life easier for succeeding generations.
Those thoughts came to mind after I contacted the Mountain View, California-based 23andMe, a human genome research company that enables users to discover their ancestry, genealogy and inherited traits. Named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a normal human cell, the writer in me was curious. Especially about their claim, “Your DNA tells the story of who you are and how you’re connected to populations around the world.” So I contacted them and chose the less expensive offering ($99 for ancestry, compared to $199 for health and ancestry).
The instructions said the saliva collection kit typically arrives within three to five days. It did. All I had to do was spit in to the tube that came in the mail, then send it back in the pre-paid package. From there, 23andMe goes to work, starting from the premise that human DNA is about 99.5% identical from person to person. But there are small differences that make each person unique. These differences are called variants, based on the DNA passed down from your parents and their parents and so on.
In my case, that meant my DNA travelled from Italy’s Cervinara, Naples and Bari – whence my grandparents came to the Little Italy section of the Bronx, where they were destined to meet, marry, and create a new generation – speaking a new language in a new country.
But geographical and language distances and differences aside, their DNA and their variants came with them. And those variants can be linked to certain health conditions, traits and ancestry groups.
That link is part of a deceptively simple chain of events. Because your saliva contains DNA from cells in your mouth, the 23andMe lab is able to process and analyze the genetic data present in your cells. Within eight weeks, an email let me know my reports were ready in an online account. I just had to log in and start discovering what my DNA had to say about me. Lots, it turned out.
But first, I had to wait for the response. And while I did that, I checked out 23andMe, which had been started in 2006 by, among others, current CEO Anne Wojcicki: married, at the time, to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The saliva-based direct-to-consumer genetic testing business was named Invention of the Year by Time magazine in 2008. It is now sold in retailers such as Best Buy, CVS, Target, Walgreens and Walmart, and has more than five million users in 48 countries. Says Wojcicki, “I started 23andMe with the belief that by getting people learning about themselves and participating in research, we would all benefit.”
I couldn’t agree more. Albeit for reasons that were more emotional than scientific. The 23andMe findings shook out my family tree in ways that were both expected (that I was mostly Italian) and not so expected (my lineage was also part Balkan, Ashkenazi Jewish, Western Asian and North African).
An internet search of other sites – including myheritage, familytreeDNA, CRI Genetics, DNA Fingerprints – provided me with unexpected information about my heritage.
For example, the name Iachetta dates back to the Middle Ages in Tuscany’s Florence (Firenze). Early notables with the Iachetta name ranged from Giacomo, a 13th century Franciscan poet and philosopher in Verona, to Giuseppe, also a poet/philosopher in Hungary in the mid-1800s.
On a more current earthly plane, it turns out there are roughly 115,365 others worldwide last-named Iachetta, according to ancestry.com. Each has their own story: from Luigi, a plumbing and heating contractor from Ipswich in England, to Dino, one of the principals in Iacchetta Builders, Inc. in lower Delaware, to independent Iachetta contractors in Knoxville. (Building seems to be in the blood. The Iachettas helped build the church near my ancestral home in Cervinara from the ground up.)
Closer to home, the story becomes a lot more personal. My late father Michael won a baseball scholarship to Fordham University, but had to drop out to help support his family during the great Depression, when his father (Pellegrino) was crippled in a work-related accident in those pre-workers’ compensation days.
Lefty Mike, as my father was known, pitched against major league legends like Hank Borowy and Johnny Murphy, married a neighborhood girl named Martha Caiati, buried his baseball dreams, and became a furniture salesman in her family’s Little Italy, Bronx business. My father eventually started his own furniture business in the Bronx, in a converted building that used to be a movie theater, around the same time that the nearby, sprawling Co-Op City rose out of the marshlands.
I became a writer and bylined stories from all over the world, almost as though my tangled blood lines kept beckoning me to explore whence I came. I am now 81, long retired, still writing, still learning.
Along the way, my wife Stephanie (Peterman), a College of New Rochelle grad and ex-IBMer, and I built our own four-bedroom home for under $40 thousand in Scarsdale with blueprints from a 95-cent paperback called How to Buy and Build a House. We raised our four children there before selling, as empty nesters, and moving to a waterfront Rye condo.
There’s more, lots more, but by now you get the idea that you may get a lot more than you bargain for when you spit into a bar code-labeled tube. For me, that included hearing the voice of my late mother saying, “If you spit into the sky, it falls in your eye.”