Healthy Aging: The downside of learning my ancestry


    I am 83.8 percent Scandinavian. I know that because, as so many people are doing lately, I filled out a detailed survey and used the spit-in-a cup technique to determine my ancestry.

    After weeks of waiting, I received my DNA test results. I was a little disappointed. I thought I was — and always told people I was — 100 percent Norwegian.

    I grew up in a family where both parents spoke Norwegian fluently, and one of my grandmothers spoke only Norwegian. I ate a lot of brown cheese (geitost) and canned fish balls. I joined my mother and my siblings in making krumkake for days at a time every Christmas season, and lutefisk is my favorite seafood. That is, if you can call cod soaked in lye a seafood.

    My husband, who is only 22.5 percent Scandinavian, resonated with my disappointment and analyzed the situation by suggesting I had several frisky Viking ancestors who did not like lutefisk all that much and were smitten by smiling Irish women.

    The possibility of no longer being able to credibly claim full Norsk heritage might explain why I was reluctant to go down the ancestry-searching path. Once I realized comprehensive health information, including likelihood of acquiring specific diseases as I age, was part of the package of results, my interest peaked. That aspect of the findings did not disappoint. For some people, health research might be a sobering revelation — for me it was affirmation that, as were my Norwegian/Scandinavian ancestors, I am strong and resilient and likely to live a long life.

    All this is particularly important to me right now because I accepted the invitation to speak at a local Sons of Norway event. It’s in celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day (Syttende mai). I am not entirely sure why I was asked, maybe because I periodically reference Norwegian custom in this column. Or because I published a book recently about enlightened aging, in which there’s a story about my Norwegian-speaking cousins from North Dakota.

    I accepted the speaking engagement because this day-in-May celebration was a very big deal in our family while growing up. My parents both donned red-jacketed Norwegian dress and spent the day at the Sons of Norway lodge eating white food and exchanging Norwegian tall tales. I have not celebrated it lately and have a feeling of ancestral guilt about that. Now that I’ve agreed to do this, I have another kind of guilt — after all, I am only 83.8 percent Norwegian. I will need to begin my remarks with full disclosure. I do not like to skuffe (disappoint, perform badly).

    I tried to get my brother, who speaks Norwegian and has traveled extensively in Norway, to join (or replace) me in talking about “growing up in a Norwegian family,” but he’s unable. He’s provided a lot of material, but he could not teach me to speak Norwegian in two weeks via text as I had suggested. I think I have convinced him to leave me a voice-mail greeting in Norwegian that I can hold up to the microphone as I begin.

    I am also comforted by a website I found outlining “ridiculously helpful Norwegian habits.” As illustration, Habit No. 2: “Norwegians think really bad things are interesting.”

    Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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