It never ceases to amaze me how, during the course of wasting the better part of day looking at the oddities the internet has to offer, I discover something that not only astonishes me, but that I feel I have been lax in not knowing this tidbit prior to now.
For instance, this past week I learned that Cass Elliot had a daughter. Why would I care to know such a thing? I really don’t, but for unknown reasons I quickly scrolled through a website that promised to reveal Owen Vanessa’s biological father. Did I say “quickly”? I spent nearly an hour learning the entire history of The Mamas and the Papas, a folk-rock vocal quartet that performed between 1965 and 1968. I don’t recall much of what I read that morning besides that John Phillips initially objected to Cass being in the group because of her size. (The term “fat-shaming” had yet to be coined.) I also learned that Cass did not die from choking on either a chicken wing or a ham sandwich, but from a massive heart attack. Oddly enough, drugs were not involved.
Before I could learn about Owen Vanessa’s parentage, I hit a pay wall and could surf no further through a site rife with pop-up ads.
I know that I could solve this mystery in any number of ways but, as I noted above, I don’t really care who her daddy was. At best, mine was a fleeting indulgence perhaps inspired by her rather unusual first name.
During my years growing up in the 1950s, I don’t recall any of my classmates or neighborhood friends who didn’t know who their fathers were. Single-parent households were unheard of in my neighborhood, a square mile or so of ethnic diversity. We all knew who we were, and we knew about our ethnic backgrounds. Living mostly in peace were Irish, Germans, Italians—most of them Roman Catholics. I identified with being Bohemian, although I knew I was half Scottish. Nobody cared that I remember. The Black people in the neighborhood were just part of our fabric.
Knowing my ethnic background was perfectly satisfying to me. I had no concerns regarding the subject, and I scoffed at the plethora of ancestral identity programs that began popping up a few years ago. And then, my kids surprised me by gifting me entry to one of those programs.
I played along and offered a sample of my spit from which my DNA would be extracted and would be analyzed in a search for my true identity.
After a few weeks of anxious waiting (actually, I pretty much forgot about it after offering up a vial of my spittle) an email arrived with the results. It turns out that both sets of my grandparents lied about their heritages. I am, according to this DNA search, 59.2% Northwestern European. Under that heading it shows my being 45.9% British and Irish, but no Scottish.
I remember hearing from my maternal grandparents about their ancestors—boasting such surnames as Snodgrass, Prendergast and Naylor—sailing from Scotland and settling in Appalachia. From West Virginia, those relatives who chose not to stick around and become hillbillies moved west, settling mostly in Nebraska.
I would have thought that the Scots might have been lumped in with the British, but no. There are several possible Scottish locations mentioned but none apply to my spit sample.
The other part of my ethnic identity is unevenly distributed in Poland, France, Germany and Greece, according to this study. This, in spite of my having seen both of my paternal grandparents’ birth certificates which show them having been born in what is now the Czech Republic—my grandmother in Prague and my grandfather in Pilsen.
This leads me to the subject of parental sex.
It is a universal fact that none of us wish to even think about our parents having sex, let alone visualize it. Yuck. And for me, what’s even yuckier is to imagine my mother having sex with somebody who passed along a genetic structure based in Poland. There used to be an explanation for children who didn’t resemble their fathers: the milkman.
There are other factors to consider. The whole British thing seems possible because I can think of no sound that bothers me more than that made by bagpipes. If I were truly half Scottish, one would think I would like not only bagpipes but haggis as well. Such is not the case.
On the other hand, Scotch is my preferred adult beverage. And if I were actually Czech (Bohemian), wouldn’t I prefer slivovitz, a brandy made from prunes that is the very definition of vile? I do, on the other hand, love sauerkraut and dumplings.
But now that I know who I’m not, it’s time to get back to my studying the ethnic heritage of Mama Cass’s only daughter.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
Bohemian Sauerkraut (zele)
My grandmother made batch after batch of sauerkraut every fall. After opening a jar of it, she would drain and rinse it. She would fry a tablespoon or two of finely minced onion just to soften it. Then she would add the sauerkraut and cover with water. She would add a tablespoon of caraway seed and let the kraut simmer for 20-30 minutes.