When I started school, Marilyn Monroe was the country’s beauty icon; she was curvy and she was blond. At six, the more significant role model for me was my tall, slender mother, a natural blonde who often lamented that my brother and I looked nothing like her.
My brown-eyed twin and I inherited our father’s stature and coloring. Now at the salt-and-pepper stage, we soon will have to stop identifying as brunettes. That’s one of the many age markers I’ve confronted on my way to my 65th birthday. My Medicare birthday, as I’ve come to think of it.
Our hair gets old. It thins, it retreats, it changes color. I’m sorry I didn’t think to request my grandparents’ original hair color before it was too late. For me, Granny and Granddaddy Smith always had luxuriant white hair; Grandpa West was bald; Granny West tucked her gray curls into a hairnet from which they were rarely freed.
Now that I’m the age they were when I knew them, I’m curious about physical traits they passed along. I can thank my Smith grandparents for my long fingers and short waist. I know my ability to sit cross-legged comes from my maternal line and, once I started doing yoga, I appreciated that inherent flexibility. But, as a child, it was my mother’s princess-like blondness I envied.
Since I now spend untold hours poking into my ancestors’ lives, I’ve wondered whose genes gave my mother and her older sister their light hair. I’ve searched for blondes among the hundreds of old photos I inherited. Most are of poor quality, creased and faded, their flip sides devoid of names, places or dates. There clearly were no archivists among my ancestors…and apparently only two blondes.
In search of ancestral hair color, I have stumbled upon one reliable source: World War I registrations. It’s a fun document to read, as it provides a physical description that asks not only for eye and hair color but also body type — slender, medium or stout. And, if missing a body part, there’s a blank for reporting that, too. It offers no help, of course, in researching women in my family tree.
Based on my mother’s resemblance to her father, my search for her blond roots started with him. Using an old photo and a World War I registration, I deduced that Grandpa West, my maternal grandfather, was likely a “ginger,” as they say in England. In a formal portrait, he and his brother, Ira, sport the same center-parted hairstyle in an identical shade. Ira’s WWI registration describes him as blue-eyed and red-haired.
That certainly fit with my Grandpa’s own assessment of his ancestry as Scots-Irish. He died when I was two years old, so we never had the genealogy talk, but it’s something my mother heard him say. Of the dozen great-great grandparents in his family tree, there’s evidence that at least two came from Ireland, where 10 percent of the population has red hair. (Along with the Scots and Welsh, the Irish make up the world’s largest population of gingers.)
Of course, Grandpa West had 10 additional great-greats, nine of whom are mysteries to me. The one I do know something about is Conrad Goodner (1756–1837), a Revolutionary War veteran born in Germany, a country often associated with blondness.
Was his the gene that lightened my mother’s hair? Did she inherit Herr Goodner’s hair?
I would be satisfied with that conclusion and close The Case of My Blond Mama right now, except I know genealogy requires more than documents and family stories. Something I’ve learned from watching TV crime shows is that the only surefire lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key to identifying a murderer (or an ancestor) is DNA evidence.
The initial results of my unpleasant spit test (who knew you had to fill up an entire test tube?) supported my grandpa’s assumption about his heritage: 20 percent of my DNA can be traced to Scotland/Ireland. And a whopping 62 percent puts my ancestors in nearby England, Wales and Northwestern Europe.
Fortunately, the company deconstructing my double helix sent further notice. They belatedly found the Goodner blood; 10 percent of my DNA belongs to the Germans. And, surprise! The final eight percent hails from Sweden, the world’s fourth biggest contributor to blondness. (Finland, Latvia and Australia are the top three.)
Sweden is filled with long-legged blondes. Like my mother.
I’ll never know what Viking’s gene sprouted from my mother’s scalp. I’m not even sure which side — paternal or maternal — links my mom (and therefore me) to Scandinavia. The connection to Sweden seems remote: ancestors I mostly encounter in my research are Tennessee farmers who wandered into Texas for a chance to plow different soil.
But, it’s fun to think about all the cultures that swirl through my blood, not only making me look the way I do, but also expressing themselves in my inclinations and preferences. Is my fondness for tea a nod to my British ancestors? My compulsive punctuality a remnant of Germanic predecessors? Perhaps it’s those Swedish drops of blood that explain my love of that moody TV detective Wallander and the girl with the dragon tattoo.
And my mom? The one raised in Macon County, Tennessee on cornbread and turnip greens? She always hated the cold, but she made a mean Swedish meatball.