Wednesday, September 09, 2020


As the amazing study of human mind and inheritance continues and as we apply what we learn to our friends and family, the result is high impact but hard to resolve.  Here’s an example.

My mother and my father’s only sister were not much alike and not exactly compatible, though they never let their relationship get out of hand, except for private grumbling.  I always thought of it as a culture difference, my aunt growing up cherished with three brothers on a northern prairie homestead and my mother growing up the oldest of four girls in the Willamette Valley in a conventionally religious family.  The paternal aunt’s family, when I raised the subject in recent years, thought I was implying something indecent, almost a sexual competition, because it was partly based on my father and his aunt having a kind of child romance — that he was her hero and protector.  He missed that admiration.  

When my mother died, I became the keeper of the family photograph archive, created by my father.  He also enjoyed the family’s opinion that he was a brilliant college man who knew classical music, played chess, and took photos. As I sorted and shifted them to digital images, I saw that his mother, my grandmother, had a major goiter on her neck, the most obvious sign of iodine deficiency.  The thyroid is a subtle but crucial organ in body regulation.  A bit of research and deduction, and I realized that this was the reason the family moved to Portland where the ocean provides lots of iodine in the food.  It worked and her goiter diminished.

Research on the effect of near-starvation in Holland during WWII has shown that the change in body chemistry that is triggered can be traced down the generations from grandparents to grandchildren, recorded in the epigenome.  The tendencies probably amount to a novel-worthy unrolling of what seemed to be personality traits coming down through the years.  

I suspect that because the effect began with my grandmother and had later possible impact on her daughter, her granddaughter, and possibly her great-granddaughter, means that it’s on the X chromosome, which they have as XX.  But even my father, XY, seems to be slightly influenced.  It’s hard to tell with him because of the impact (literally) of a concussion in a car accident that caused a personality change.  But his heredity must have some effect on me because he and I are the only fat people.

My mother’s XX seems to have been unaffected by anything I can detect, but both my brothers were slightly atypical, and one also had a concussion that crippled his brain.  Both were Marines,  both earned college degrees, and only one married.  The other one had a daughter outside marriage, though he was devoted to the child as long as he was allowed access and we've found each other now.  My mother said she married our father for his good teeth and eyes, but none of us inherited them.  We're about the same smart but with different results, maybe traceable to their choice of Benson Polytechnic High School for boys.

My marriage was only an interval inside a long relationship and I actively resisted pregnancy.  I am solitary.  I have three degrees: BS, MA, and MDiv.  As Hanna Gray put it when she handed me my MA diploma, they were “hunting licenses” — often hunting myself.  Both boys sort of fizzled out. I've been baffled about why. Why did our family of cousins disperse?

The family on my father’s Scots/Canadian/Dakota side, were masters of presenting themselves.  They were not church-goers, but idealistic about national identity and governmental support and protection.  Rural granges were their churches. My paternal grandfather was well-educated in Scotland and was superintendent of schools in South Dakota.  

On the cusp of the industrial revolution that changed from horse-based energy to machines, they were doing well raising potatoes and selling farm machinery, but then were undercut by WWII which nevertheless improved some fortunes, like the ship-builder uncle and bomber/transport pilot uncle.  Anyone meeting them casually would consider them typical achieving and honorable Americans.  Certainly my mother was.

Both her sisters married brothers, prosperous ranchers respected in their communities for generations.  They did not go to church but they did not drink, smoke, or gamble.  One taught her three daughters to marry well, but unfortunately one lawyer husband died young.  The other thrived and was a community asset.

The other aunt had served in WWII as an army nurse in London and Rheims, sustaining damage from intense smog and other possible second-hand effects.  Her four children have had varied stories.  The daughter had an extra toe and the daughter's son had a “club foot” but became a brilliant scientist.  Other close family in that line but with no war history have had missing thumbs and so on.  The name “Hatfield” seems to be confused with Hartsfield which is an inherited mutation of extremities, but it does seem to travel with the Hatfield name as well.

A Hatfield cousin not related to me had no thumb, but the surgeons transplanted her toe to her hand and it works well.  Though surgery made things “normal”, my cousins seem to have a sense of being secretly different and a special concern about how they seem to society, a willingness to accept the slightly shady in order to be prosperous.  Still, none is a church-goer, the girls have graduated from college, and all are hard-working.  They have blocked me out of their lives.  I do not seem prosperous to them.  Maybe irresponsible.

The questions that are raised by all this are things like what to do about the high social value of family solidarity that was American before the immigrants made it even more intense.  What are the obligations of a writer to originating family?  How much secrecy and disguise is actually moral and protective?  What about the children and grandchildren of the cousins I grew up close to?  I can’t even name them.

I disclosed the main patterns of my Sixties marriage and the genealogy of my husband, with some hints of more than what appeared on the surface, but he was an “artist” and considered a public figure already.  In fact, as it turned out, the community knew secrets about him that I had no idea about.  On a rez everyone knows everything.  Some didn't tell me until after they read "Bronze Inside and Out" to see whether I already knew.  Some things I probably never will know.  Except no one had much interest in me and most of what they knew about me has been outdated.  Many crucial things happened to me since my years in Browning.  People here don't read.  "Divinity School" means nothing.  They know bible college.

My family on both sides buys into “capitalism” as the moral center of life.  Only female cousins on my Scots paternal side pay any attention to my writing or understand my interest in “religion.”  Yet one paternal aunt by marriage was a published poet, popular among magazine readers.  A great-aunt on my mother’s side is a fine painter of still-lifes.  Within their media they were both far more conventional and sentimental than me, but charming and skillful. 

The most careful conformity can be disrupted.  I’ve felt protected by education from any prohibition or danger resulting from wandering wild fields.  But feeling alone is not enough.  Examination and reflection are demanded.  In times like our present multiple crises it's all more intense.

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