There are reminders.
My son’s long, tapered fingers are versions of my Dad’s. His ears are echoes from his paternal line, his feet an amalgam (arches from me, foot shape from the other guilty party, other parts unknown). Some characteristics link him to people whose names I will never know, broken family connections wrought by my mother’s adoption, while others click into the known (color blindness that ripples through three generations on my husband’s side) and the misty (clearly he is color blind in part because of my mother’s family contribution, which remains partly mystery).
Some associations to people of the past are more material, like the cast-iron pan I roasted Brussels sprouts in last night. This pan, from my father-in-law’s collection, was originally seasoned with bacon and sausage fat. In my hands it has gone from carnivore to herbivore, more likely to shimmer with olive oil than lard. It does a lovely job at caramelizing Brussels sprouts, however. And I think of my father-in-law whenever I use it, imagining it on the stove in his apartment of the last 15 years, marked with a thin white sheen of bacon fat. It’s not the same as connections written in the DNA, but it still brings a person, a life, to mind.
I can’t tell whose hands I have (is that you, Mom?), but my feet belong to Dad. Knowing this, staring down at my long toes, experiencing the occasional twinge in one of those high arches, does not have the same soothing effect as seeing my son’s hands. It is easier to mark outside of myself. Perhaps, I hope, it is there in other, less measurable parts of my boy as well – a certain clear-eyed sense of what is right, a complicated intelligence. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is the raw material and what is simply who we are and choose to be.
When my father focused on genetics, he often looked at dark trails of depression, heart disease, diabetes, and various autoimmune disorders. I still have the emails from my son’s year of fevers, my dad outlining the family maladies to help us connect the dots. So let me say this: my father was intelligent, funny, athletically gifted. He had an artistic sensibility. He could be brusque and too quick to sum things up. He was compassionate. He could sometimes be cruel. His fingers were long. His arches were high. He struggled. He kept at it until he didn’t have to anymore.
Our connection, writ in blood and cell, is primitive. It is physical. Reductive. I steal glances at my son’s hands and see my father’s hands. But I also remember the stories, the experiences, the ineffable essence of who my father was: irreducible to a series of maladies, separate from DNA. I remember. And so he lives on, in one way or another.