A Piece of Myself

It has been almost two years since my parents died and we cleaned out the house, but I still have a few boxes of random mementos sitting here in my office.  Every month I have promised myself to do the final sorting, but have made limited progresses.  In this month’s feeble effort I came across two envelopes, one was labeled “Ralph’s first hair cut, 1925” and the second one, “Fanny Day Farwell’s hair, Nov. 23, 1936.”  My father was two at the time; his envelope contains a yellowed piece of tissue paper holding a small lock of blond hair tied with a itty blue bow.  My mother was 9 and she must have had a major makeover since her envelope contains a huge wad of long thick auburn hair.  My clean up project abruptly ended as I stopped to ponder what I should do with these souvenirs.  Do I need to poll my siblings to see if any of them wants the envelopes, or perhaps I could divvy it up and send each their fair share of hair.  Any why do people save hair anyway?

I was in a wool store once when a women came in with a large amount of dog hair that she had collected over the years and then spun into fiber.  She said that she was interested in knitting a vest for herself made out of the dog hair.  The shop owner sized the situation up and told the customer that she would need to collect more hair for the pattern she had picked out  She wistfully responded, “I can’t, the dog is dead.”   When I type “dog hair spun” into Google there are thousands of entries for dog hair, including spinning services and knitting patterns.  I found a picture of a lovely older woman (despite her yellowed teeth) who was modeling a cozy looking hat made from a Belgian sheep dog and a two tone scarf made from a labrador and golden retriever.   

 It is borderline to truly creepy (with slightly Nazi overtones) to extrapolate dog hair to human hair, but I learn from the internet that human hair has been spun for millenia to make braided watchbands, bracelets, bookmarks and even jewelry.   Another website describes the practice of using spun human hair from different family members to create embellishments for a family wall hanging.  Still slightly creepy, but this seems to get at the reason why my grandparents saved their children’s hair –  pictures, movies, art projects, report cards are fine, but a collection of hair is probably the only way to create an enduring physical memento of a loved one.  The pleasure must have been more conceptual than real since I am quite certain that my grandparents did not return to the envelopes to touch or stroke the hair to prompt misty-eyed memories.  In fact, I am probably the only one who has opened these envelopes, which have been moved to attic to attic until their final resting place in my office.

About the same time I was dealing with my parents’ hair, I stumbled across my own very permanent physical memento even better than hair or bronzed baby booties – my karyotype created 25 years ago when I worked in a cytogenetics laboratory as part of my pathology training.  A karyotype is a collection of a person’s chromosomes – 23 pairs for a total of 46 – each recognized by the pattern of stripes, or bands, along the chromosome’s length, and the location of the waist (called the centromere), which is the anchor where the chromosomes are yanked apart when the cell divides.  I remember standing on a laboratory stool with an eyedropper full of cells and aiming it at a tilted glass slide.  Carefully, I would squeeze out a single drop so that it would splatter on the slide, splitting open the cells and scattering the chromosomes.  I would then stain the slide to produce the characteristic banding pattern.  

My job in the cytogenetics lab consisted of staring at other people’s chromosomes to make sure that they were all there, or that the chromosomes had not swapped pieces with each other.  I took advantage of this job to create my own vanity karyotype, which I have treasured for the past 30 years.  It has been posted on our refrigerator or in a frame on the mantel, but after our last move, it got buried in a drawer.  So I was delighted to find it after a 5 year absence.  Even now, after so many years, my pattern recognition skills are intact.  I instantly recognize my tall and willowy chromosome 1.  Chromosome 6 was always a particular favorite since the waist and banding pattern reminded me of a hula dancer with a bikini top and grass skirt.   Of course I have two proud and strong X chromosomes, and I have always thought it ironic that Y chromosomes are just a tiny smidge of genetic material.  In a professional karyotype the individual chromosomes are snipped out and arranged in order by size, from chromosome 1 to the sex chromosomes, like a police line up.  But I have left my chromosomes where they lay and the resulting picture has much more personality.  As a group, the chromosomes look like an aerial view of dancers on a dance floor, with chromosome 9 cutting in on chromosome 2, and both chromosomes 1 bent at the waist like they are really rocking out.  Splatted off to the side, chromosome 17 looks like a timid wallflower.

My individuality is not visible from this level – that would require the identification of the individual genes on the chromosomes, i.e. genotyping.  In fact my karyotype would not look any different than Hitler’s or Julie Andrews, but regardless I see a very personal statement.  It is still pure me and a distillation of my ancestors.  In addition to the locks of hair, two family portraits have emerged from the attic – my great-great-great grandparents Henry and Nancy Farwell.  They are both dour characters dressed in black, only Nancy adorned with a lace bonnet and collar.  Maybe my genes have gotten a little bit dinged up through five generations and millions of divisions, but 1/32th of my karyotype can be traced back to each of these people.  More so than a lock of hair, or my gallstone that I was so enamored of last month (I am quite confident that future generations will not consider this a treasured memento of my physical being) – this karyotype is my very core being.  In the debate between nature and nurture, I am staring at ground zero for nature.

I wonder what genes have been plumped up by my nurturing environment.  Certainly the one for word play, since I grew up surrounded by constant games, ditties and doggerel.  That gene has been carefully stroked for decades to create a genetic family recipe spewing out some sort of secret word play sauce that lets me know that “sweaty” is the perfect rhyme for “spaghetti” and that “excite us” and “hepatitis” are made for each other.  But as I look at my karyotype, I wonder what other family jewels are hidden in there, just waiting for a little nurture to blossom and change my life.  Perhaps Henry Farwell was extremely limber.  If this bequeathed gene had been given the proper attention, I might have found success as a circus contortionist.  Perhaps, as her portrait suggests, Nancy Farwell was pious and obstinate, and I should be grateful that future generations just buried this legacy.

There is no medical situation where needing a karyotype is a good thing – usually the indication is some sort of leukemia, birth defect or infertility, but I can see another money making opportunity for cash strapped cytogenetics laboratory.  How about vanity karyotypes as an addition to a family tree?  Forget the hair or the bronzed baby shoes.  I would love a tree that included a picture and then maybe a miniature karyotype.  Even though the chromosomes themselves would look similar across generations, they would be dancing around on their own dance floor.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (like post, stop, spot) and the number of dashed indicates the number of letters.  One of the anagrams will rhyme with either the preceding or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the context of the poem.  Scroll down for the answers.  

Your chromosomes and genes are your nature, your essence, your core, your kernel,

 Half come from your mother the other half are ——–

 This collection of  ——– genes in turn came from prior generations,

 That have mixed and matched and weathered a few mutations.

 The result is YOU and when it is your time to procreate and retool,

 Your chromosomes will mix again to create a ——– genetic pool.







 Answers:  paternal, parental, prenatal

Posted in ,

Leave a Comment