In January 2008, my mother’s high school friend Hannah mailed me photos from more than 50 years ago.
In a 2-inch by 2-inch black and white photo, standing on the beach in Wildwood Crest, N.J., was my father, Mauro, tanned and healthy in his 30s, alongside my blonde mother, Jeanette, in her mid-20s. There is no ring on my mother’s left hand, so it must have been before they were married in 1957.
“Your mom was so beautiful and your dad so handsome,” Aunt Hannah told me when I called to thank her for the pictures. She’s not my genetic aunt, but she and my mother were once so close they were like sisters.
Mom’s been gone since 2003. My father died of cancer in 1971 when I was 10. In the 1960s, we had a happy, energy-filled household. I was the eldest of five. My sister and I formed a duo, with myself insisting on playing the heroine in every fairy tale, while my three brothers — including twins — formed their own boys’ club of rough and tumble fun.
My mother was an artist and my father an attorney — the ultimate yin and yang. They kept the family going while my father went through chemotherapy and my mother wondered what the future held. Now that both are gone, I and my siblings live on memories. If we don’t share them or write them down, those memories will be gone.
Luckily, something deep inside of us remembers many things.
That spring, I scraped the inside of my cheeks to send my DNA to the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project to find out things that are hidden deeply inside my cells that even my mother, who gave them to me, never knew about.
Watching the National Geographic/PBS production called The Journey of Man, I was fascinated that geneticists can trace the entire human ancestry back to its distant past, just by noting the mutations along the double helix strand of deoxyribonucleic acids or DNA. The DNA compounds have their own natural match — A (adenine) links to T (thymine) and C (cytosine) goes with G (guanine) — like yin and yang, light and dark, positive and negative, male and female — to make a whole.
My test would only reveal my mother’s genetic line through my mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), tracing back through time to the original woman in Africa, the genetic Eve, whose pattern of A/T and C/G markers have been preserved through the millennia from mother to daughter. One of my brothers would have do the test to trace our father’s genetic line because only they have inherited his y-chromosome.
A few weeks after sending in my sample, I typed my ID number into the Genographic project Web site.
The window that opened showed a world map and a diverging series of paths moving from East Africa northward and eastward until finally heading westward into Europe. My “Certificate of mtDNA Testing” also included these words: “Maura belongs to Haplogroup H.”
The journey my ancestors, Haplogroup H, took over time is astounding. Some 150,000 years ago, my maternal predecessors were in East Africa. Each woman in successive generations went with her tribe into the Near East, probably following game, favorable weather, and survival. About 15,000 years ago, humans re-colonized Europe after the glaciers retreated from the last major ice age. Today, my mother’s genetic line is shared with some 40 to 60 percent of all females of European descent. My great-grandmother made the greatest migration of all when she traveled from Ukraine to Pennsylvania before the turn of the last century.
In her last days, my mother talked about her destiny that she didn’t seem afraid of. “Don’t be maudlin when I’m gone,” she commanded, lying in her hospital bed and soothed by the morphine drip. I was grateful that the opiate let her talk with us in those final days. I promised I wouldn’t be maudlin. But I would try to remember.
“There is no antidote against the opium of time,” said Sir Thomas Browne, the 17th century scientist/philosopher who famously tried to measure the spirit by weighing a chicken before and after death. “But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.”
With my poor memory and Sir Thomas’s warning, what am I to do? I can’t forget that my mother and father once stood smiling on the beach. I can’t forget how proud my mother was of all of her creative children: an engineer, a toy designer, a model-maker, a film/video special effects editor, and, myself, a writer, who makes her living putting other people’s memories and thoughts to paper (and maybe a few of her own) and scrapes her own DNA to learn some of the distant details of our family’s history.
I may forget little things — like my lunch last Friday — but my DNA remembers the big things. How far my ancestors have journeyed. Why I have brown hair, brown eyes, and pale skin like my maternal grandmother. Why Danielle is blond like my mother. Why Stephen has dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin like my father. Why the twins, David and Richard, have light brown hair but my mother’s hazel eyes.
Mauro and Jeanette’s genes are carried down to seven grandchildren — four boys and three girls — with more on the way, possibly. What we do and say may not be remembered forever, but we will be remembered through our DNA. It’s our past, present, and future.