Twenty Three Pairs of Me


I stand on a wobbly stool in the pathology laboratory and aim an eyedropper full of cells at a glass slide on the counter below.  The first two drops miss.  The third hits the slide, splitting open the cells and scattering twenty-three pairs of chromosomes.  I stain them with dye to produce the characteristic banding pattern of the underlying genes. 

As a pathologist, I would normally cut out the individual chromosomes from a photograph and organize them in pairs according to size, do a quick head count to verify all are accounted for and then pore over them to detect any abnormal banding pattern suggesting an evil gene.  But this is of no concern with this sample.  This is my vanity project; these are my chromosomes.  I want to see the distillation of my ancestry, the underlying engine that keeps life humming along. 

I don’t cut up my photograph, wrangle my chromosomes into a genetic version of a police line-up.  I leave them just as they land.  As a group, they look like an aerial view of a joyful dance floor.  At the picture’s center, chromosome 9 is bent at the waist, tapping the shoulder, and cutting in on chromosome 2.  Perhaps chromosome 12 is eagerly seeking her better half, isolated at the other side of the dance floor, obscured by a smear of blood.  I am proud of my two stalwart X chromosomes.  One is cozied up against the stubbier chromosome 7, the other next to the willowy chromosome 6. 

My photograph captures my chromosomes as they prepare to divide, duplicated and tightly coiled, ready to be yanked apart when the cell splits into two.  Uncoiled and relaxed in their new cells, they devolve into a gossamer network of filaments studded with genes, bathed in a nurturing cellular soup.  I picture my genes pulsing and thrumming as they direct scuttling messengers, marshal forces, build proteins and fend off attacks. 

My ancestors have bequeathed me this shimmering array of genes.  The solemn portraits of my triple great grandparents, Nancy and Henry, hang in my dining room. Maybe my genes have gotten a bit dinged up through five generations and trillions of divisions, but 1/32nd of my genetic material can be traced back to these people.  How can I connect my chromosomes to this couple, two pioneers who stowed all their possessions in a wagon and headed from upstate New York to a one room house in western Illinois?  How are their genes playing out in my comfortable suburban life? 

I imagine Henry as an expert marksman, relying on his innate hand-eye coordination to bring down a grouse or dove to feed his family.  Have I repurposed this talent into my blistering forehand on the tennis court?  Perhaps Nancy was an expert tracker in the woods, able to spot a freshly broken twig or a blurred paw print, guiding Henry to the wolf that had devastated their chicken coop.   Did I repurpose this gene for pattern recognition into a career as a pathologist, scanning swaths of cells to deftly pick out the rogues? 

Is there more in my primordial ooze that has lain fallow all these years?  Maybe that bleb on chromosome 5, or that little satellite waving atop chromosome 12, remnants of Henry and Nancy’s inheritance that I have not nurtured.  I consider my recent interest in public story-telling, an activity that I never would have considered for myself.  Me, speaking in front of strangers? At bars?  No, never.  But there I stand, microphone in hand.  Maybe I am belatedly channeling Henry, tapping into his talents.  I imagine him attending the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate in nearby Freeport, Illinois. On his return he entertained his neighbors with colorful stories, including, he claimed without corroboration, an uncanny imitation of Lincoln’s voice and mannerisms. Perhaps Henry became a well-known raconteur, recognized at church picnics and county fairs.  Am I walking in his footsteps?  Once someone in the grocery store recognized me as a story-teller, and then again at a quilting convention. 

I stand in front of Henry and Nancy with my photograph, pondering hidden talents and untapped potential.  The picture has traveled with me for forty years, from city to suburbs, from apartment to house, from fridge to office.  It is a snapshot of an old friend, a touchstone, a story prompt.  Thirty-five years ago, and then again thirty-one years ago, I was proud to bequeath half of my genes, 1/64th of Heny and Nancy’s, to my two children.

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