Do you know who your great great great grandmother was? All sixteen of them? How about your great great great grandfathers? And are you sure?
We humans keep forgetting how ephemeral we are. I think it was easier to realize that when life expectancy (real life expectancy, not statistics, as in “how does does someone from your class/region/mode of life expect to live? As in, what they used for Social Security was gamed that way because you were not likely to collect even ten years of it. So, please, no arguments about how people in a small village in the Alps which you studied for your doctorate always lived to their late eighties. I have a limited appetite for bullsh*t and I remember being a kid in the village and when a sixty year old died it was “well, he’s old” not “so young?”) was just over the mid-century.
Now we can look to “almost a century” and the rate of centenarians is increasing. And we tend to forget how ephemeral we are on the face of the Earth, how we come from the unknown and go to the unknown, as far as our genetic line is concerned.
Okay, why is this other than depressing you?
I actually don’t mean to depress you at all. Our role in this is a bit part. We do the best we can and frankly even as writers we have maybe 30 good years (if we’re lucky) and then we exit side stage pursued by a bear, and we have little control on who follows us, who uses us, who gloams onto us, and what “children” we spawn. Ginny once told me that Robert would be proud to have a daughter like me, and I’m very very glad of that, but sometimes I wonder what he would make of me, particularly as I mature.
The same applies to my beloved grandmother, the woman who more than anyone else is responsible for who I am. Oh, she knew about the story spinning. As far back as when I was five she gave me a very serious lecture about knowing which voice was mine, and never losing track of that, and also about vocations (not religious, but for professions) and the damage done by ignoring them.
But sometimes I wonder what she’d make of me, now I’m almost as old as she was when I was born. I know she’d think our house was “a palace” but her ideas of palaces were frankly… well… she was a woman of the early 20th century in a small rural village. I wonder what she’d make of the rest.
I’ll never know. The principles she gave me stay within me. They inform my decisions in a world and a country she couldn’t begin to imagine, or to picture me in. They probably informed more of her great-grandsons’ upbringings than she could dream of. And yet, she might not recognize them in the form they took, removed from the village in which she lived her whole life.
I miss her everyday and would give years of life to walk once more around the side gate, past the patio-of-the-renters, past the wooden gate grandad made, past the orange tree and the flowerbed with the calla lilies, and call her, in the big, cool kitchen. She’d come from upstairs (where she was probably cleaning) and make us tea, and we’d sit and have tea in the good cups with the good (from a tin) biscuits (cookies) and I’d pay to do that once more, and hear her talk about her day, and everything she’d done. But even more so than when I was in college and couldn’t explain my worries to her, I’d have to stay quiet. Maybe tell her that her great grandsons are studying to be a doctor and an engineer (nothing strange to her. It’s the family diseases) but not the details of our everyday life, or the things that worry me, because that would be alien. I already do a deal of that kind of editing with my mom who is only eighty something. And if grandma lived she’d be 112. That’s another world which has passed and gone into the night, with everyone who was an adult then, because we humans are ephemeral.
This is why it’s insane to set too much stock on ancestry. You can’t because you don’t know it.
I’m always highly amused by everyone who spends time and money tracing one line or two or three way back. You can’t trace them all. And you can’t account for what great great grandma did behind the kitchen door with the traveling peddler. You didn’t know all 8 of your great great grandmas, and no, you can’t vouch for their morals. In any group larger than two or three there will be at least one squirrely one. Guaranteed.
Yeah, sure, there’s genetic tests. The problem with that is that EVERY conception, going back and back and back, half the DNA gets “wrapped up” and essentially thrown away (yes, it’s more complex than that, but that’s the image.) Which means the Victorians had a certain point and unless you come from a highly inbred line already, marrying your first cousin is not the end of the world, and the kids won’t have ten toes in each foot. There is a chance the DNA you guys share is actually negligible. You might not share any with your sibling, though that’s unlikely. But it’s possible. And if you and your sibling show completely different ancestral groups, no, your mom wasn’t unfaithful. You just inherited different sets.
So if your test shows an unexpected group, that’s a revelation, but if it doesn’t show an expected group, it means nothing. Just that the genetics of that group aren’t present in you (though they might still be passed on to your kid.)
Genetic tests tell you what’s in you, but not what your ancestry is. Only what manifests in you, if that makes sense.
Which bring us to: we’re ephemeral. We’re all parts of people we forgot, we didn’t choose and most of whom would be rather shocked by some aspect or other of us.
But I’m not saying we don’t matter. Remember when I said my grandmother, in a little village in Portugal, who only traveled to the “big city” (twenty minutes away by train) half a dozen times in her life, has influenced the upbringing of her great grandsons, across the sea, who speak a language she never learned, and live in a society she couldn’t ever fully comprehend (not that she was stupid, but yes, it really is that different.)
Principles like respecting true vocations; working as hard as you can in all the time you’re giving; not giving up even after your heart breaks fighting against the odds; putting your family first; being loyal to your friends and those to whom you owe favors — all of them came through me, as well as I could make it, and onto my children.
Your DNA is ephemeral. It might or might not pass on to your own kids, in any proportion worth mentioning. Your body is ephemeral. You don’t even know how long you have it, and it has a tendency to start breaking down unexpectedly. Your work is ephemeral. It passes on to the hands of those who’ll interpret it through a fun house mirror (I was reminded of this yesterday at finding the feminists ire in comments on Patricia Wentworth’s mysteries. If you google it, you’ll find the woman should be a fricking feminist icon, but these women object to her portraying early 20th century women as early twentieth century women presented in public. (Her women usually exert power in distinctly feminine ways.))
The only thing you can do is raise your children or children in your sphere well: model behavior you want to see passed on. The behavior, the example, tend to remain.
Everything else passes.
So you have a lot of room to screw up… Even while doing the best you can.
Now go do the best you can.