Do you ever look in the mirror and wonder who you are? Sometimes, heading out of my tiny powder room, after washing my hands, I catch a glimpse of my paternal grandmother in the mirror.
No, I’m not as old – nor do I look as old – as she was when I first met her, much less my first memories of her (which were of her being sixty three.) And we’re not objectively that much alike. Like most people, I went through life looking now more like one parent, now more like the other, depending on how I wear my hair and what weight I am.
But as I catch a brief, sidewise glimpse of my own face in the mirror, there’s that quirk in the lips, that expression in the eye, and my heart flip flops and I think “Grandma” before I check myself.
There is heredity, of course. I stop short of believing our heredity programs us like little robots, that, beyond fate, we’re acting in some kabuki theater where every action was predetermined from the moment of birth and we only think we have free will. Someone like me who kicked over the traces pretty hard, and whose initial elaborate “running away from home” as an exchange student hinged on seeing a particular poster at a particular time would have trouble believing that. Besides, as I’ve explained before, even if it were true, I wouldn’t believe it. To believe it would be to concede evil has won, that there is no choice and no such thing as an individual, and that we are like so many ants, following scent trails.
Besides, if that were true, the one nation that enshrined individual liberty would have done worst of all in prosperity and living conditions.
So unless it is proven at some point we really are living inside a computer simulation (!) I’ll continue believing that most of what we do is… well, not nurture so much (though that comes in) but self-will.
Which leaves me baffled by the things that aren’t, by those bits of actions/expressions/attitudes that seem to pass down the stream of DNA without our volition.
It is impossible, of course – Sarah says, channeling her inner Miss Marple – to live in a village and no know something about human nature. And what I know about human nature is that to an extent “what is bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.”
My family was known in the village for “A gift of words” – despite some stunning sports we threw out now and then, like my inarticulate grandfather, whose words were likely to come out backwards and sideways, as did my older uncle’s and as do my younger kid’s (though that might be developmental, as it’s going away now, being replaced with family-normal fluency) a disability that seems to always coincide with some form of engineering ability.
If they needed a spokesman for the village, someone to write a poem, some sort of wordsmithing, they came to us, even when the current representatives of the family were manual laborers or craftspeople.
How much of that was bred in the bone? How much was the conversations around the dinner table where philosophical questions would be unpinned and you learned your vocabulary at three from listening to dad and granddad argue about the differences between various methods of governance?
One of the things that indicates heredity is the resurgence of the same characteristics in the descendants of a “sport.” My inarticulate grandfather, whom his parents, in despair, had apprenticed as a cabinet maker, produced – among his grandchildren – as many lawyers, psychologists, doctors and engineers as his far more articulate brothers who were in those professions. This despite the fact that as the much poorer branch we were more or less isolated from that side of the family.
In fact, going back as far back as one can, in my paternal line, one finds reasonably well educated people (even when general literacy in Portugal was minimal, all of us knew how to read, the women included) who predominantly show a flair for wordsmithing which might or might not be coupled with other abilities. Professions range from crafts to law, though the family has a strong tendency to engineering and doctoring.
How much is bred in the bone? It shows as bred in the bone, but is it? How much is the talk around the dinner table? And how much is picking mates who understand that talk? My articulate father married an articulate and casually brilliant woman whose scant education was dwarfed by an interest in … everything. (Though mom, like my younger son is very suspicious of fiction.)
Perhaps it is that I’m getting older which causes me to worry when I catch a glimpse of grandma in the mirror. Not because I’m afraid I’m looking older. I have no illusions about the fallibility of the flesh. But because I wonder about gifts received and what I’ve done with them. I wonder if I am living as I’m predisposed to or if I’m truly choosing. I wonder about things like the Almeida tendency to pick the most bassawkward political theories to follow. (With me being small l libertarian and my brother being a communist, though, it leaves one in a puzzle. Maybe we’re headed to an era with no political theory at all?)
Perhaps it is because I’m raising kids away from all the relatives who could have reasonably influenced their expressions, their beliefs, their ways of being in the world. And yet, my younger son is so close to my dad we might as well have cloned dad. He even follows the same developmental milestones.
Then there’s Robert who is a patchwork of both families and who startles me suddenly with a look like my grandfather Alvarim’s, or by sitting like my grandmother Carolina.
Bits and patches, and … Who are we?
If we go back far enough, we’re all cousins, probably several times over. As Older Son is fond of reminding me, human population has gone through extreme bottle necks at least three times, and there might have been less than a hundred individuals. So, we’re all cousins.
But you still see a continuity in a line, when you know the line.
And when you don’t? I know adopted children who are more like their adopted parents than the parents’ natural kids.
I know that our pediatrician, when we talked about adopting and being afraid of getting a kid who’d be lost in our family, said “In your family? Not a chance. By the time they’re three, they’ll have the same vocabulary and fluency and they’ll test bright, anyway.”
Is it true? I don’t know. In the same way both kids often feel like total strangers, or like all too familiar, I suspect it would be the same.
Who are they? Who are we? What unknown/unremembered ancestor gave us that nose? Where on Earth did those eyes gaze before? That tendency to lead with the chin when arguing… where did it come from? Was the last ancestor to do that some Phoenician merchant whose last remaining bit of DNA in the blood left me only that?
Thinking about this stuff brings about the same sort of vertigo that looking down on an endless abyss does.
And of course in the end the answer is always the same – you take your bits and pieces, patch them as best you can and carry on. You mend what you can, you accept what you can’t (because even you aren’t endlessly changeable, no matter how much will power you have) and you carry on.
But sometimes you catch that glimpse and you can’t avoid thinking “Who am I really? And what hidden depths have I failed to unlock?”