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The Importance of Radical Empathy with DNA Matches | Our Prairie Nest
The Importance of Radical Empathy with DNA Matches

You log in to your various DNA tests to see what’s shaking, and see something exciting: a new close relative match! It’s not a name you recognize, but that makes the new match that much more exciting, yes? So you send out the message you have used time and again with new or particularly intriguing matches:

Hi there,

We are a DNA match through my mother’s (or father’s) side. It looks like we share many cousins I’ve been able to identify as sharing my ancestors, (great-grandfather) and (great-grandmother), from (town), Massachusetts. Are those names familiar to you?

I am also from Massachusetts, but now reside in Nebraska. I love connecting with new cousins and sharing family history. You can reach me via Ancestry or email at (email address). I hope to hear from you!

Sincerely,
Wendy Callahan

A sample of the short, but informative message I like to send new matches.

You wait eagerly for a response but, when you receive it, find it’s not nearly as enthusiastic as the ones you normally receive.

“I’m confused,” they may say. “I thought I knew everyone in my family. I took this test and the results aren’t at all what I expected.”

Many of us have been there and a little bit of detective work has led us to what happened, as far as this person’s test: a person they thought of as their biological parent or grandparent wasn’t.

In particularly sensitive situations, it’s a matter of non-paternity being “outed” by the test. What’s a genealogist to do in this situation?

Based on my experience and what I’ve seen with others, I recommend radical empathy. This is the process of striving to understand and share another person’s feelings.

And while this is all well and good, your mileage may vary. Not everyone responds well and part of radical empathy is accepting whatever response you receive, with the understanding that this new cousin is going through something difficult and unexpected.

In my case, it turns out my father has a first cousin whose paternity was not what they expected. This match was confused by the relationship to my father, my sister, and I, as well as a lack of a particular ethnicity in their results. Based on the information made available about the person they believed was their father and compared to our ethnicity results, it was easy to see why they were confused.

I reached out to certain family members and did some other legwork to solve the mystery of how this person was a first cousin to my dad. It quickly became obvious who among my known paternal family was this person’s parent.

However, the match did not ask for this information, so I did not supply it to them.

In fact, the match stopped talking to me and I accepted this as that person not wanting any information, and furthermore put my energy into understanding why they would feel this way, instead of focusing on my disappointment that they didn’t want contact. The one thing I provided without being asked was medical information about a potentially hereditary disease. That in and of itself confirmed the paternal connection between us both, based on their last response to me.

Accepting that this person didn’t want to continue communication was difficult, but important. This wasn’t about me, but about them. I had to put my feelings aside and put theirs first. I made sure to also let them know that if and when they were ready to talk, I would be here waiting for them. I gave them my phone number and email address and left it at that.

When a DNA match doesn’t want to continue contact, it might be difficult, but try to prioritize their feelings over yours. Even if both of you are processing an unexpected revelation in biological relationships, your way of dealing with it might be different than theirs. As genealogists, we are generally open to these kinds of discoveries. We know – or ought to know! – what we’re possibly getting into with a DNA test.

But not everyone does. So, I believe it is our duty to guide them through those potential hereditary minefields with patience and sensitivity. Let’s be not just genealogists who get excited about new relatives, but also people who care about what our fellow humans are going through in their own discovery process.

Life With Birds or Our Feathered Family | Our Prairie Nes
Our Feathered Family

“I want a bird,” you might say. Or think. Or you might go out and get one. And, for the most part, people imagine a pet bird as a tiny yellow canary, sitting in a cage, chirping quietly or not at all. Or maybe a parakeet that’s just cute and sweet, and the perfect accessory. However, the reality of owning a bird is very different than the imagined dream.

First of all, there’s a lot of information out there about which birds are “best for beginners” or most affectionate or least noisy or less likely to make a huge mess. The truth is, these ideas aren’t applicable in every situation. In fact, the most you can generalize about owning a bird is as follows:

  • They are messy.
  • They are noisy.
  • They aren’t cuddly.
  • They are also expensive.
  • They’re probably going to outlive you, especially if they’re a larger parrot.
  • Their care takes more research and education than a dog or cat ever will, so you’re better off with a dog or cat. Really.

And these generalizations are going to vary from bird to bird and person to person. If I’m starting off sounding negative, it’s because the cold, hard truth about birds is that they aren’t easy to have in your home. It’s like having a 3 to 7-year-old that never grows up, never leaves, never goes off to start their own life without relying on you (and even some humans don’t do that!). However, if you want one, here’s a glimpse into our feathered family and how we got here.

“Hold birb gentle like hamburger.”

Our First Bird

We started off with bird ownership because they’re, like, soooo cute! Okay, that wasn’t the only reason my husband practically begged me to go to a bird breeder when we lived in England. But what were the reasons for bird ownership, really, and were we ready? My husband knew more about birds than me. Just as some people are dog lovers or cat lovers or horse lovers or snake lovers, or whatever, he was a bird lover. I wasn’t sure about having a bird in a house with cats… or at all. So I did the same thing I did when I was expecting my first child: I researched the heck out of having a parrot. Especially because our first bird was going to be one that was considered not a beginner’s bird – a black-headed caique.

Here’s what I learned from countless books, websites, and forums – as with children, nothing will be the way you expect. This bird is going to come to you with pretty high-level intelligence, and the ability to both melt your heart and surprise you every single day.

We picked up Avery in a small English town right before Daniel had to go TDY at the time. That meant I was left all alone to care for a new bird with only recently-acquired knowledge, while the bird-lover who’d been into the idea of owning a parrot for at least several years was gone!

Avery and I became the absolute best of friends. He melted my heart from the moment he first fell asleep on me. Black-headed caiques are, as we would say back home in Massachusetts, wicked smaht, and he caught on fast with potty training. He was also a snugglebug (something I didn’t expect), talked to me while I showered if I let him come in the bathroom with me, and basically turned me into the bird mom I’ve become today.

Caique love.

He is now 9 years old, a sweetheart some days, a holy terror other days. If his hormones are surging, he thinks I’m his girlfriend and my husband is the enemy. If he’s feeling content, he’ll fall asleep nestled down on my chest or in the crook of my neck. He says his own name and “Step up.” He growls if he spots danger… or if he thinks you’re coming too close while he’s nibbling on a walnut. He’s smart enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong, but just as his intelligence is on par with a 3-year-old toddler’s, so is his self-control!

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. For me, birds are superior to dogs (though I’m still a cat person, as my head-butting, scritch-demanding, terrified-of-the-parrots felines can attest). I don’t have to go outside to clean up the birds’ poop. In fact, we don’t have to set foot outside on cold days for any of their needs. Warm days are another matter, in which case they get to spend the majority of the day outside, soaking up the sun!

Also, unlike dogs, birds don’t smell bad. Avery smells like wet cardboard, which is the telltale sign of a healthy caique who eats a good diet. They fly around the house freely, but trust me – there’s no pooping on your head mid-flight. Or at all if you’ve potty-trained your parrots.

A case of the zoomies…

Our Second Bird

In the summer of 2019, a friend reached out and let us know she was looking to downsize her flock. This is how Apollo, an approximately 12-year-old Congo African Grey came to us. I had no intention of buying another bird in the near future, but maybe to foster or adopt one after we finished renovating our home. I also had no intention if that bird being larger than Avery. Daniel said time and again that he wanted an African Grey, but I thought they were immense, like larger Macaw breeds.

However, just as Avery turned me into a bird mom, Apollo has me saying, “Hey, how about a Macaw in a few years?” Because this new addition to our family has also brought many lovely surprises.

Here’s another thing: if you aren’t ready to stand still and be calm when you hear the sound of flapping wings, you aren’t ready for a bird. Avery’s flight is more of a rapid flutter and he can almost hover like a hummingbird, but Apollo sounds like a helicopter! His body size is roughly equivalent to some of the smaller hawks out there.

When Apollo first came to us, he was an uncertain flyer. Now, he gets the zoomies on a regular basis. And when you have an almost 1-pound feathered missile darting around your home, you might want to duck for cover! But that’s something you absolutely cannot do, because a parrot is smart enough to look for the safest perch. That just might be you, so this is your second reminder that being able to stay calm when something is flying around or at you is important. If the very idea of a bird flying toward you terrifies you, you are probably better off with four-legged family members.

Parrots pick up many of their emotional cues from their environment. A calm, stable environment, with a steady routine of feeding, play time, flying time, and alone time (yes, even parrots need quiet and time to themselves) is important.

As with human toddlers, a bored parrot is often a loud and/or destructive parrot. An unsocialized parrot can become a sad or even spiteful one. And while you might think flighting a parrot (clipping their wings) is going to help them “behave,” it’s no more humane than declawing a cat. I’m going to put this bluntly: If you have to physically alter an animal to fit your personal preferences, you shouldn’t own an animal.

Having parrots is a lot like having children. They’re unique. They’re individuals. They have distinct personalities, likes and dislikes. They need to have some control or they’re going to give you a hard time. They need choices and options, and also the ability and freedom to refuse you. If they don’t want to be with you, they should be able to fly away from you. If they won’t eat their broccoli, you need to be open to trying different greens with them, because a well-balanced diet includes fruits, veggies, and pellets, with fatty treats like nuts and seeds kept to a minimum, and used for training or as special rewards.

Keep in mind these birds have cognitive ability ranging from that of a human toddler (a parakeet or caique, or other small parrot) to that of a kindergartner or first grader (an African Grey). Yes, a first grader. And that’s only based on what little we know about bird and parrot behavior.

You’ll clean up after me, won’t you, human?

Oh, and let’s not forget about those long life spans. When we get a dog or a cat, we figure on about twelve to twenty years with them. Even now, I joke that my eldest cat is an “old man” because he’s thirteen. But Apollo is also roughly thirteen or so… and this is barely a quarter of his life. Since I’m forty-five and he’s thirteen or maybe fourteen, a calculation of “possible years left” basically shows that either of us could outlive the other. And that’s not taking into consideration something happening to me or my husband sooner. Who gets the bird(s) if you die?

That isn’t a fun question to answer, but it’s something to have in mind before you commit to a parrot. Even worse is the fact that social media will be happy to remind you of that. “We welcomed an African Grey to our family!” I shared one day on Twitter. Someone decided it was then their duty to scold me about the fact that said African Grey will probably live to be sixty, and that I needed to think about that. My response was that my parrots are written into my Will and there is a home waiting for them, should something happen to me in the foreseeable future. I will also change my Will accordingly, as necessary (i.e. if my daughter still expresses a desire to have our birds when she reaches adulthood).

More Birds?

So after being a bird mom for nearly ten years (which isn’t a lot, but sometimes it feels like we’ve been a family forever), what’s in my future? More birds. My daughter wants a bird. We’ve told her that we know they look like a lot of fun to her and we realize she’s had birds in her home her entire life, since she just turned seven. However, we want her to be absolutely sure. If she still wants a bird when she’s twelve, we’ve agreed on a cockatiel (not to be confused with a cockatoo).

She is also taking an active part in training our caique. She works with him on step up, step down, and his continued potty training, as well as treating him for good behavior.

I also want to add a medium to large macaw to the mix but, again, not just yet. Our home renovation needs to be completed first and then we would like to build an outdoor aviary. But I might be about fifty-years-old by then, and I’m not sure I feel comfortable committing to a bird at that point in my life. It won’t be fair to a bird, unless we go for a much older rescue, which we’re open to. Knowing what I know about parrots, I wouldn’t get a baby again, simply on principle. But I’m glad we had Avery from his early days and wouldn’t change a thing!

Having parrots is a lot like getting a tattoo. The first one is exciting and you feel a little rebellious for doing it. It’s like a gateway into getting more and more. But, it’s more like a cross between getting a tattoo and having children, because it’s a living creature with needs and feelings. It’s something you have to really think about, because meeting their needs is so important. Give yourself time to consider what it would be like, because your life will change once you enter parronthood.

Brick Wall or Research Question | Our Prairie Nest
Brick Wall or Research Question?

This year, I’ve decided it’s time to be more specific about exploring my brick wall ancestors, as well as those who aren’t brick walls, but leave me with questions. Sometimes, it’s easy to mix up the two. What we think is a brick wall might actually be a research question, one that’s easily answered if we focus on it.

A brick wall is a place where you are at a standstill. You have unanswered questions and until you get those answers, can’t move any further back to previous generations. A research question can apply to both brick walls and ancestors for whom you’ve learned a lot, but might need confirmation of certain facts.

In the interest of putting some “cousin bait” out there, here is my list of brick walls and research questions for 2020:

Paternal

7th Generation: John Wood (circa 1800 – aft 1871) & Ann Siddall (circa 1810 – aft 1871), Marple to Ancoats and Chapel-en-le-Frith to Ancoats, England – Brick Wall

7th Generation: William Gray (circa 1815 – bet 1891-1901) & Ann Jane Mason (1815 – aft 1901), Ireland to Stockport to Ancoats and Woolrich to Stockport to Ancoats – Brick Wall

5th Generation: Emma Anna Wallace/Murphy (1861-1945) & Unknown Reagan, Guysborough, NS to Middleborough, MA – Research Question: Who was her first husband? When were they married? How did their marriage end (death or divorce)?

6th Generation: Francis Wallace (unk – aft 1867) & Elizabeth Murphy (1838 – aft 1861), Port Mulgrave, NS and Guysborough, NS – Brick Wall and Research Question: Did either of them every marry? If so, whom? Did they have other children? When did Francis and Elizabeth, and their potential spouses, die?

7th Generation: John Patrick Murphy (abt 1793 – 1873) & Mary Ann (Fraser) Lowery (abt 1806 – 1882), County Wexford, Ire to Guysborough, NS and Guysborough, NS – Brick Wall

8th Generation: Esther Unknown, wife of Edward Curtis (circa 1747 – 1840), Dudley, MA – Brick Wall and Research Question: What is her maiden name? DNA potentially points to Burrell or Short. Also mtDNA ancestor of Dad/paternal aunt. Willing to test their mtDNA?

Maternal

6th Generation: Giovanni Feola & Teresa Sofia, Campora, Italy – Brick Wall, not yet explored.

6th Generation: Nicola Tomeo & Francesca Trotta, Campora, Italy – Brick Wall, not yet explored.

8th Generation: Elizabeth, wife of William Parks & Mr. Johnston (circa 1795 – bet 1881-1890), Halifax, NS – Brick Wall and Research Question: What is her maiden name? What was her second husband’s name? When did she die? DNA potentially points to Johnston as a maiden name, as well.

8th Generation: Levi Benson (circa 1765 – 1815), Wareham, MA – Research Question: Were his parents Elisha Benson (1731-1813) and Sarah Steward (1732-1790)? Prove his paternity using Vermont probate record found for Elisha. Need to view at FHL or affiliate library.

6th Generation: Michele Galfre (1836 – unknown) & Francesca Manassero (1839 to unknown), Spinetta Italy – Research Question: Where were they born, married, and died?

7th Generation: Giovanni Battista Bartolomeo Galfre & Teresa DeMatteis, Spinetta, Italy? – Brick Wall

7th Generation: Giovanni Manassero & Teresa Cavallo, Spinetta, Italy? – Brick Wall

6th Generation: Giuseppe Bergamasco (abt 1837 – 1941), Cairo Montenotte to Moneglia, Italy – Research Question: When was Guiseppe born? Continue trying to decipher the handwriting on his birth record from the Allegati. When did he die? Possibly in or after 1941, supposedly 104 at the time of his death. No death record for him in Moneglia up to 1941. Died after 1941 or elsewhere?

7th Generation: Antonio Bergamasco & Maddalena Bozzolasco, Cairo Montenotte, Italy – Brick Wall (one of the witnesses to their son, Giuseppe’s, birth was Joseph Bozzolasco, perhaps a relative?)

7th Generation – Tomaso Pedemonte & Angela Giusto, Cogoleto, Italy – Brick Wall. Angela is the farthest back I can go on my mtDNA line thus far.

Prettier on the Outside | Our Prairie Nest
Prettier on the Outside

This incubator of plague and sower of dissent is my daughter. I love her with all my heart, but motherhood isn’t easy, no matter how cute the child appears. Sure, plenty of people do tell me she’s cute – “So cute!” “How adorable!” “I just love her.” “She’s no trouble at all.” To the outside world, what you see is what you get.

But we know the truth about our children. We know no amount of dreamy, Instagram-filtered photos can convince us otherwise. Our children are tiny monsters of varying degrees, with superpowers we never knew existed until they were born.

In her first 6 years, my daughter:

  1. Informed me that she thinks I hate her and wish I never had her (this is because we grounded her for sneaking outside with her unwanted dinner and trying to throw it in our trash can to fool us into thinking she’d eaten);
  2. Had various colds and hand, foot and mouth disease (something I, as a city-bred New Englander, thought only hoofed animals contracted);
  3. Managed to make up fantastic stories to explain mundane things, like how a Raggedy Ann doll got all the way up on top of a bookshelf (according to her, our smallest parrot found a way out of his cage, picked up the doll, and flew it up there; another time, she informed me that a monkey farted on her finger, causing her pain… what?).

When my husband and I fight, it’s only about one thing: how to parent our daughter. While my daughter is rolling in mud, organizing her spiders to worship their queen, and plotting how to hide the evidence that she didn’t eat her broccoli, my 17-year-old son is calmly ambivalent about his sexuality, strumming a guitar, and going with friends to Taco Bell.

I never had these challenges with my son. I am one of the moms who was duped into thinking, “Wow, the first child is so easy, the second will be a breeze!” Why, why, why did I think that?

Here’s something else I’m also guilty of thinking: that other kids suck. When I see a child screaming in a grocery store or a mother with 5 kids clinging to her, I look at my daughter and say, “I’m so grateful for you.”

But I think most moms don’t actually suck at parenting. I think most of us are doing the best we can, and most of us only see what others allow us to see. I think we all make our parenting choices and hope for the best. And, honestly, we need to let it be that way.

So next time your child is organizing a household mutiny or you suspect them of seditious intentions, don’t despair. I’m pretty sure you aren’t alone.