family tree
Illustration: Mayumi Otero
When I was old enough to wonder, I was told I was Norwegian, which seemed likely enough given my surname, my high cheekbones, and the fact that my grandmother on my father's side came from North Dakota, ate pickled herring, and darned her socks on a lightbulb. Proud of her heritage, she taught me and my cousins that pain, fear, and illness were to be endured without a fuss (think Vikings). Crying, complaining, and shirking work were for other people. Norwegians were clean, industrious, levelheaded, and reticent. They didn't have time for chitchat or idle emotion.

When I got older, my mother told me, "Your grandmother might have married a Norwegian"—my ne'er-do-well grandfather—"but that doesn't make her one." It irked her that her mother-in-law called her an Okie, looked down on her Baptist upbringing, and interpreted her refusal to iron sheets or wear shoes around the house as proof of her hillbilly origins.

My other grandmother, my mother's mother, had an equally unreliable account of her side of the family: "We got some English, some Irish, maybe a little German," she said, then hinted that there might be more genes in the pool—Choctaw, African-American, and French. The ingredients and proportions varied with each telling, like a poorly remembered recipe. Shortly before she died, she told me, out of the blue, "My granddaddy was a full-blooded Indian. He scared the living tar out of me."

Because my so-called roots seemed fragmented and diffused, a mixed bag of hearsay and conjecture, I never took much interest in them. What difference did it make? I had cultivated my own persona, and if I had to be proud of something, I was proud of being Californian—a restless, free-thinking breed. We loved the outdoors, made fantastic wine, and ate organic produce. We were a melting pot, believers in fresh starts, in live and let live. Our homeland was on the edge of the continent, where people came to seek adventure and escape their pasts

The California sunshine had given way to halfhearted drizzle the morning I succumbed to the onslaught of pop-up ads, e-mail blasts, and Facebook sidebars offering a 14-day free membership to ancestry.com. Maybe I was stalling a few minutes before getting to work. Maybe I had always wondered. Maybe my past did matter. I typed my name into the search engine, hit the return key, and Las Vegas erupted right there at my desk; judging by the flashing lights and clanging bells going off, I had hit the jackpot. Before I could reach for my mouse, the software kicked into gear with the seductive force of a crossword puzzle, sudoku, and video game rolled into one. I was hooked.

Next: The journey begins