As I anxiously waited in Leeds station last month to meet the cousin I hadn’t seen in 10 years, I was nervous it’d be awkward and we’d have nothing to talk about.
A fallout between our parents meant we’d lost touch over the years – but then there she appeared in the station’s lobby.
Although we hadn’t seen each other for so long, I spotted Charlotte instantly. My mum has always said we look like twins – both tall with long, narrow feet and brunette hair. Naturally, the conversation was a bit weird at first as there was still so much to learn to about each other. Before long, however, it was impossible to stop talking.
As an only child, my family has always felt really small and quite isolating, so building up this relationship with Charlotte meant a lot.
The mini reunion had come after I reached out to her last year while I was researching our family history. If I hadn’t looked into my family’s past, I’d still be in the dark about my heritage – and still probably not talking to Charlotte.
It’s through shining a light on my past that I’ve irrevocably changed my future – for the better. Until last summer though, I wasn’t really interested in this side of my family history.
I have always felt ashamed of my last name. It’s not just its constant mispronunciation but also the detachment I feel from my father following my parents splitting up when I was eight.
My mum has been the main parental figure in my life and her parents have, and always will be, my best friends. The truth is that my dad’s parents have always felt like relative strangers.
While I still see my dad and care about him, the distance between us means that visits have become increasingly infrequent.
I am ashamed to admit this but as I didn’t see much of my dad over the years, the communication with his parents was just not there. Visits were always uncomfortable so in all honesty, learning about my father’s family history just wasn’t on my radar.
But as the years went by, I became more and more unsatisfied with only knowing half of my story. It felt like a piece of my identity was missing and the final straw was hearing about my maternal grandma’s family history journey.
Last year, she traced her relatives through an ancestry website and discovered she was related to surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, famously known for the Mason and Dixon line. So after her encouragement, this inspired me to go to our local library to see if I could do some basic research.
I hadn’t got far but discovering more fascinating details about ancestors I knew nothing about – such as their location and occupations – convinced me to invest time and money into further exploration.
So as lockdown began, I took out an Ancestry membership and began to track my father’s line of the family – starting from my great grandparents.
Tracing my ancestry was no mean feat. I had heard stories from my mum that my dad’s side had travelled over to England from Ireland hundreds of years ago – eventually settling in the north east – and that our last name had been misspelt somewhere along the way. I never got down to the bottom of the truth behind these tales.
Searching through hundreds of census records with variations of the name McGaun took months and trying to decipher my real relatives was near impossible.
In January last year, I submitted a sample of my DNA to an ancestry site after being gifted the kit as a Christmas present from my grandparents. The process was fairly easy but it still felt like I was going into the unknown, as my mum’s knowledge of my dad’s family was so limited.
The results came back within a few weeks, and I was shocked.
I’ve always felt close to my homelands but discovering my ancestry DNA was 50% English, 37% Scottish and 13% Irish was amazing. Most of my friends had ancestral connections abroad so to have a heritage that was so rooted in the British Isles felt unique and special.
Most would find this dull and hope for ancestral connections in far flung countries, but I couldn’t be happier. To know that I’m living just a stone’s throw away from ancestors over hundreds of years ago fills me with so much joy.
Yes, most of them did not have the most exciting jobs – there is a long running path of labourers in my family history – but they worked through some of the hardest times.
I’ve even traced my ancestry back to the Plantagenet Kings, including Edward I of England, who is my 20 times great grandfather. After watching countless episodes of Who Do You Think You Are, I always hoped that there was some distant royal blood in me, but I never expected it to be on my father’s side.
The sheer determination I’ve discovered in my family stories – such as my great uncle who survived a prisoner of war camp in Thailand – resembles so much of what I see in my family blood now. It’s a strong sense of independence, if at times stubbornness, against all odds.
Distant relatives from Australia reached out to me on social media after being identified as DNA matches – cousins of my grandad I had never heard of.
It was exciting to know I had relations abroad because it added a whole other layer to my background.
Seeing our visual similarities with relatives halfway across the globe was an amazing feeling and it finally felt like all the dots were coming together.
McGaun has always been an extremely rare last name and made me feel like a real outsider, so discovering my bloodline sharing it was heartwarming.
That’s when I reached out to Charlotte with my findings. She knew almost nothing about her dad’s ancestral heritage so found the results eye-opening.
Since the first time I reconnected with her, we are in regular contact. A year ago, I would never go to her to discuss anything that was going in my life but now it feels natural.
Unfortunately, our reconciliation hasn’t helped heal rifts with other members of the family, but we hope this will improve with time.
I have been invited to her wedding in October and I am thrilled to share that special day with her.
You can’t choose who you’re related to. Fallings out can’t be easily remedied. But, we are determined not to let the disagreements between our fathers get in the way of our relationship.
You may feel detached from relatives or ashamed of your background, but it is only when you have the full picture that you can understand your true self.
Researching your ancestry can be as simple as getting in touch with known relatives you haven’t spoken to in years, or as complex as tracing your history back hundreds of years. The beauty of it is that it can mean various things to different people.
My identity was never something I was proud of but I’m so glad to finally feel able to embrace my roots.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk.
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