I’m going on an epic adventure soon.
Many of you will recall my trips to places like Bhutan, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan, and Myanmar, and wonder what I have come up with now.
Well, this one is epic for me, personally, not because of the geographic remoteness or political turmoil of the destination, but because it is part of a search for my ancestors.
I have done considerable research in the Balkans, and wrote a book about my mother’s side of the family: Mother Tongue. Part of this upcoming trip involves a return trip to the Balkans, as a mob of us–kids, grandkids, cousins, siblings– descends on Istria, now in Croatia. We will visit Medulin, the village where my mother was born. We might also visit the refugee camp where Alex and I spent our early childhoods. We will bask in the sun, eat truffles, and chatter in Croatian.
But the first part of my epic adventure will take me to my other homeland: Russia.
Next year is the one-hundredth anniversary of the day my father, his siblings, and their parents fled, as the Russian Revolution and Civil War wiped out most traces of their very existence. On November 13, 1920 my father’s family set sail from Crimea in search of new lives. I intend to publish a book to celebrate that centennial.
My grandfather was the only one of ten siblings to escape; we are the only Amochaevs outside of Russia. No one has ever known what happened to the descendants of Grandfather Ivan’s brothers and sisters. We lost all trace of them.
I am looking to find a connection. Those of you who know me understand that once I get on a mission, I pursue it with a relative amount of persistence.
My brother, my Russian cousin’s family, and I will be traveling with a possible new relative with whom I connected recently for the first time, Artem. His family doesn’t speak English; fortunately, after 100 years, we American Amochaevs still speak Russian fairly fluently. The ages in our group will range from a quarter of a century to almost three-quarters of one. Together we’ll travel to the villages where my grandparents were born. We will travel through our old Don Cossack homeland to our parents’ evacuation point at Evpatoria in Crimea. I am carrying DNA kits with me in the hope of finding more potential family-member candidates.
Yesterday I read a book about a woman who learned through DNA testing that she didn’t know her biological father. She also learned about a cousin she didn’t know she had. A light flashed in the back of my brain. I set to work.
I drew up genealogical charts and family trees to figure out what percentage of a DNA match would be required to confirm a candidate. Because we are going back to people born 150 years ago, the percentage is small. I hope to find a DNA match of one-half of one percent or more. That would almost guarantee a third cousin, or a second cousin once or twice removed, e.g., a young person whose great-great-grandfather was my grandfather.
This morning I decided on a whim to look more carefully at the results of the DNA testing I had done a few years ago. I learned that Kat—my first cousin once removed—and I share almost half a percent of DNA with many people. I found on Facebook that one such young woman—with an uncommon Russian name—comes from Moscow and lives in Washington, DC. A possible match. The most amazing news, however, is that the girlfriend of Kolya, my only other first cousin once removed, is that young woman’s Facebook friend.
I am sharing this now, before I learn more about those thin threads of connection, because I want to share this mystery with all of you as I myself experience it.