Thursday, December 21, 2006

Defining family this holiday season

In another life I would have been a geneticist. I’m fascinated with the idea that from a drop of blood we can today learn that our ancestors left Africa and traveled along the coastline, through India, to Australia. Or headed into the Middle East and eventually to Europe. Or ventured inland through Central Asia, into the arctic reaches, and crossed the frozen Bering Strait into North America, and eventually South America.

My own amateur attempts at genealogy are paltry, extending at most 300 years, compared to the amazing discoveries that geneticists who unlock the codes of DNA can tell us about.

When I was young, with a brother who had died at birth, and a younger one who was brought into our family through adoption, I admittedly, subconsciously, fantasized about the similarities I might have had with my older sibling had he lived. I did recognize my blue eyes and my thin face as that of my father. And eventually, as adulthood set in, and middle-age took effect, I recognized the metamorphosis that enabled me to not only look more like my mother, but enable my young daughter to look like her as well.

I still fantasized about my long-lost brother, and what he and I might have had in common. Or about the grandfather who died when my mother was 10, and the grandmother who died when my father was 8. Was my love of learning a trait that had come from my grandfather, who briefly attended college? Would I have had anything in common with my grandmother, a housekeeper who reportedly liked to play euchre and green tea?

Unanswered questions that I could daydream about, and eventually explore in a novel as yet to be finished, but ultimately put away in storage since they simply did not affect my day-to-day life.

Except that periodically I’m reminded of the value that I place on genetics. When I travel to Ireland to seek connection with my ancestry, and meet people who have lived in the same home that my distant relatives left 100 years ago, what is it that I’m seeking? I know many of the people I’ve met there express bewilderment about how fascinated we Americans are with the lives of people who lived generations earlier, tucking their secret histories into our genetic code.

When I read, as I did recently in the Washington Post, of an 18-year-old girl who was conceived from donor sperm, and made contact with the once anonymous man who donated his gametes for her conception, I wonder about the connection she is seeking from him. Is it to learn about herself? The identity experts would tell us that it is so. That especially as teenagers we look for ourselves in the reflection of others who share our genes.

And why is that? What can that mysterious mirror of DNA tell us? What hunger does it satisfy, to know from whence we came?

When we sit around the dinner table over the holiday season, and look across at aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and siblings, what is it that gives us comfort? Or if those same faces annoy us – why do many of us feel obligated to sit together over a feast, year after year after year?

What is it that defines us, as family? If we all share common ancestry, yet have splintered off because of different migratory routes, what is it that binds some of us to a few, rather than to a larger community? Is it simply our shared biology? Or is it that less scientific spirit of shared moments and experience that binds us to those that we love?

Some would say, as they did when the 18-year-old wrote about her need for a connection with her biological sperm donor father, that the only important family comes specifically from the man and woman whose direct genetic code we carry in our bloodline. They would say that one mother and one father are what each child needs, and without it there is a decay of spirit that can lead to violence, promiscuity, and abuse.

Some would say that a same-sex couple cannot offer the same sense of family that a child craves, and thus our marriage laws must be clear about not sanctioning any union that is not of one man and one woman for life.

Where did these rules about our definition of family come from? When did grandparents and elders and mentors become less consequential to our children? And why? Is it because there is something inherent in the DNA code of our ancestry that makes us feel complete, and that non-biological connections can never fill that space?

And how non-biological are we anyway, given that very little variance is found in our genetic code?

These are things I will quietly wonder about this holiday season as I sit with biological and non-biological kin, sharing in traditions that I know will shape my children, whether they are genetically significant or not.

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