Driving the plane tree-canopied Roman roads of southern France with my parents last week, I noticed in my peripheral vision that my mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, was gripping the door handle.
Why the grip? I thought. She’s buckled in, there’s no one else on this road, Randall’s a safe driver, and we’re cruising this long, straight line.
Mid-thought, I realized I was gripping my door handle, too. Exactly like her.
I also saw my mom was chewing gum. (I dislike gum-chewing.)
And mid-thought, I realized I was mid-chawnk.
She’s so animated, I’d been noticing all week, and look at her whip up a conversation with any stranger. Like me, my kids say. And just like the way she used to call for us – operatically, throughout our little Utah neighborhood –– “Oh, Daaaaaltons! Come to diiiinner!” –– she sings my son’s name to get his attention: “Oh, Dalton! Come to dinner!”
Just. Like. Me.
Then I looked at my Dad, sitting in front of me in that car. Strong brow, concave temples, intense eyes, I thought. And what’s this man got against sleep?
An instant, and in the rear view mirror I caught my own eyes staring back at me: riveted. Emphasized by those sunken temples. Underslept. My Dad’s mesmerizing green-blue-gray bloodshot.
I used to draw caricatures, and when I was a teenager, I did one as an anniversary gift to my parents. It featured me as a hybrid of my Mom and Dad: Dad’s brow, Mom’s chin, Dad’s eyes, Mom’s hair, Dad’s fast gait, Mom’s theatrical voice, Dad’s cold fingers, Mom’s wide feet.
I looked like Quasimodo in drag.
What I couldn’t draw as a teenager is what fascinates me more today. There are all these parental qualities I mirror, the ones no one can see or hear or measure in a caricature: My strong inclinations toward the spiritual. My voracious curiosity. My sometimes flamboyance, my former brooding. My perfectionism. My anxiety. My sweet and salty composite self that, in ways still being revealed to me, are reflections of not only my beloved parents, but my parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents. And theirs. And theirs. Farther back that I can comprehend.
I am them all.
When pregnant with our eldest, Parker, I had an ultrasound. I forgot completely to check for the tell-tale plumbing showing gender, because what gripped me most – what flipped me out! – was this little thing that had to do with our baby’s hand. The technician didn’t understand why I gasped, squealed, then grew teary: There in a swimmy uterine vision was that small, 5-month-old left hand, fisted (could this be true?) with the thumb tucked between the pointer and middle finger.
Just like his father.
(Next time you sit next to Randall during a long meeting or airplane ride, take a look at his thumbed fist.)
“A woman is her mother/That’s the main thing,” wrote poet Anne Sexton.
A woman is her father, too. And a man is his mother, and his father, a baby his daddy. And we are our grandfathers, our grandmothers. We are all composites of someone, most often someone totally unknown to us, whose eyes, voice, gait or grip (on a car handle or on a thumb) we have inherited.
The question is, how?
Scientists in the field of genetics used to insist that a double helix was the essential tree of life, that DNA was destiny, and although a pretty twisted ladder, it was an unyielding one that linked generations to each other. That stance says that we are inextricably and irrefutably the result of our bundle of wiring, however prickly or sleek that might be making you feel right about now.
While that camp was nailing down that truth, anthropologists were telling us something else; that zip code, not genetic code, was our true destiny. That geography, (meant broadly or specifically), determines who you and I will become. We can escape (or overrule) our genetic print-out by changing our environment. Drug lords and sociopaths and saints and poets aren’t bred, they’re cultivated, and that cultivation implies culture. Tweak culture (through revolutions, political uprisings, schooling campaigns, a move to the burbs) and you’re tweaking generations of humanity. If nothing else, one can at least lean that DNA ladder on a different wall.
Behavioralists piped in. They argued that nurture, not nature and not society at large, determined the composite person. I grip the car door handle or sing my children home, not because I am neurologically wired to do so, and not because I sprang from a western culture where cars and singing are a norm, but because I was nurtured by a mother who holds tight and sings well. Caring contact, say the behavioralists, (like regular physical caressing and cooing during infancy – or the opposite, isolation and other forms of brutality) will “make” a certain person. They went further to say that enough caressing can greatly soften, even straighten, a dangerously kinked-up double helix.
You’re way ahead of me in this already, and you’re thinking, no, neither DNA, environment nor nurture have made you who you are. You have a will. And this cast iron will of yours has made you into the intelligent, compassionate, resourceful survivor you feel you are today. You are the czar of your destiny. You have overcome. You’ve mastered your genetically inherited temper, waistline, anxieties and ingrown toenails. You’ve risen from the rot of the projects, or you’ve not let the excessive wealth in which you were raised rot out your core. You’ve shaped a life around trust, love and service, although you were abused, neglected and abandoned. With such a will, you know you’ll overcome the rest.
Whatever you believe with regards to how we become who we are – DNA, geography, nurture, human will – there’s something new to consider. Its implications are huge. I talked my husband’s ear off while we jogged and walked the dusty paths of Provence last week, an apricot sunrise oozing over the silver-sage shimmer of olive trees. Here’s the thing:
All those notions are right, partially. Our genetic imprint is central to, but not exclusively responsible for, who we are. DNA is not rigid. It is smudgy. It morphs. DNA is a pliable genome, a wobbly ladder. How does it change? Through social processes. That includes our zip code, our relationships, and our choices.
The study of epigenetics (the interplay of biological and social processes on our genes) suggests convincingly that both our immediate and intimate environments as well as our will (choices) can override our genetic code, or at least change that code markedly. Like you, maybe, I wasn’t surprised to learn this, since I’ve seen it in myself and in others. Change is possible, even change on the deepest cellular levels, the change and evolution of one’s nature. It’s just nice to find scientific research to validate my personal convictions.
“People used to think that once your epigenetic code was laid down in early development, that was it for life,” says Moshe Szyf, of McGill University in Montreal. “But life is changing all the time, and the epigenetic code that controls your DNA is turning out to be the mechanism through which we change along with it. Epigenetics tells us that little things in life can have an effect of great magnitude.”
What does this mean? This means we don’t only have some control over our genetic legacy, but we carry a great deal of responsibility. As one researcher notes:
“Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. . .Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics.”
So! . . .
Sooooo . . . Where did I arrive at the end of this long Provençal walk? And what conclusions can we draw from studies of DNA, nature, nurture and epigenetics?
First, it’s all fascinating, and second, I’m not done discussing it here on the blog.
Lastly, for me it is, as are all things, understood best in its personal application, which is where I’ll end today:
I love my parents. How can I even begin to express the ferocity, the devouring and sweet knee-buckling tenderness I have for them? I love them. Even if for the cynic this means, maybe, I’m merely loving myself as their genetic reflection.
In all reverence and daughterly clumsiness, I thank my parents, married 56 years this month, for being who they are, for finding one another all those years ago, for remaining together and devoted to us children (and our children, and their children to come) all these long years.
I honor them – and the whole spiraling ladder of their parents before them – for watching carefully not only what they did or didn’t smoke and eat, but what they imbibed and ingested symbolically. The woman I am is, to a great extent, their human and spiritual epigenetic imprint, indebted eternally to them. They’ve kept a tight grip and held an intense (though sometimes bloodshot) eye on the road, as we’ve cruised this good life together.
Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.
How are you a hybrid of your parents? Grandparents? Culture(s)? Teachers? Mentors?
What other factors influence your nature/spirit/humanity?
Leave a note for your parents here, and copy them on this post!