Twenty-three ways of looking at our ancestors
By Priscilla Long
June 1, 2005
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.
—Linda Hogan, “Walking” from Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living Word
The scientific revolution known as the Human Genome Project began in 1990 as an international effort to map the human genome. With jubilation, scientists announced in June 2000 that they had completed a rough draft. By 2003, they had discovered most of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 human genes found on our double-strand of 23 chromosomes. This essay is a montage with 23 chapters, one for each chromosome. It was inspired by a 2002 art exhibition titled “Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores the Human Genome” mounted here in Seattle at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery. The exhibition sent our town into a flurry of lectures mutating into poetry readings mutating into PowerPoint presentations on elementary genomics. But the deep origin of my obsession has to do with my own genome. I am an identical twin—one of nature’s clones …
Six million years before we were born (before any of us were born) there lived in Africa a great ape, which our species has named Pan prior. Out of Pan prior both the chimpanzees and our own line evolved. This grandmother ape, how shall we think of her? Shall we despise her as if she were a massive piece of crud in our shiny kitchen? Shall we deny that we have inherited her genes? Shall we strut about as if we ourselves were made of computer wire and light?
2. Corps of Discovery
The Human Genome Project is the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the 21st century. In 1804 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and 31 other souls (the Corps of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery) traveled into a country that was to them entirely unknown. They traversed rivers, mountains, prairies, swamps, rapids, cataracts. They took specimens and made notes and drew maps. To map the human genome, from 20,000 to 25,000 genes strung along 23 pairs of chromosomes, is also to journey into the unknown. Lewis and Clark meant to befriend the Indians, but in the end, they cleared the way for the destruction of indigenous ways of life thousands of years old. As human genomes are mapped, as the genomes of mice and flowers and fleas are recorded, much will be revealed—the secrets of life itself. And make no mistake about it: much will also be destroyed.
Take the gene that produces florescence in the Northwest jellyfish. Inject the green gene into the fertilized egg of an albino rabbit. Get Alba. Alba, the green-glowing bunny. Alba, designed by an artist in Chicago, created by a lab in France. Alba, a work of art, a work of science. Alba, the white bunny with one strange gene. Alba’s jellyfish gene makes Alba glow green. Oh Alba. Oh funny bunny. Oh unique creature, foundling, sentient being without fellow being. Oh freak without circus, star without sky, noise without sound. Alba the ur-orphan among the creatures of the earth, for what mother rabbit would accept into her litter a newborn that glowed like a green light bulb?
4. Recombinant Recipe: Milk-Silk
The spider web is the strongest natural fiber in existence. But for centuries attempts to raise spiders in the manner of raising silkworms have failed, due to the spiderly taste for other spiders. Spiders eat spiders eating spiders.
The genomic solution: introduce a spider gene into the goat genome. Spider-goats in their spider-goat barns are renewing the economy of rural Quebec. Spider-goats look like goats—curious eyes, heads cocked to one side, perky ears. Their milk, strained like cheese, spun like silk, produces a filmy fabric, lightweight, stronger than steel, softer than silk. So strong is milk-silk that a bullet fired at point-blank range bounces off, unable to penetrate. And beautiful it is.
Milk-silk is a natural fabric. It is as natural as daffodils or baby crows or maggots creeping in a cow pie. It is as natural as a spring breeze or a drop of spring rain. And, too, milk-silk is an unnatural fabric. It is as unnatural as a robot or a tack or an airplane taking off for Peru. Milk-silk is both natural and unnatural. Still, it is more natural than Nylon.
5. Next of Kin
Chimps have long arms for climbing and for swinging in trees, and they have opposable thumbs and opposable big toes. They knuckle walk—walk on all fours with their hands folded into fists. They are born with pale faces that gradually turn brown or black.
Chimps live in large sociable communities that have an alpha male, and several (less dominant) alpha females. They express affection by grooming each other with obvious pleasure and elaborate precision (they can remove a speck from the eye or a splinter from a toe). They can be quite aggressive; communities have been known to go to war. Chimps are territorial, and when they happen upon an isolated foreign individual on their border, they kill. Like humans, they are capable of cannibalism, of infanticide. But chimps also laugh and kiss and hug. They dine on a diet that varies from plants to ants, using stick-utensils to work the ants out of the ant cupboard. During the day they spread out in small groups to forage for food. While they are thus scattered, the males drum, stamp, and hoot: the chimpanzee Global Positioning System. At night they gather and make nests high in the trees.
When a chimp is born, the other chimps come around offering to groom the mother for a chance to inspect her baby. Mother chimps are fiercely attached to their infants. Baby chimps suckle for three to five years. Adolescents stick with the family and help to baby-sit the little squirt. The baby requires a long time, five to seven years, to learn all the ways of chimpanzees from chimp talk (so to speak) to tickling to hunting food to building the nightly nest. A chimpanzee becomes an adult between 11 and 13 years of age, and can live to age 60.
In December 2003, a chimpanzee genome was read for the first time. Chimps are so genetically similar to humans that some scientists want to reclassify them to the Homo (hominid) genus. Others disagree, arguing that language and culture may have a minuscule genetic basis, but major species consequences.
6. Lament for Ham and Enos
In the late 1950s, the United States Air Force acquired 65 juvenile chimpanzees. Among them were Ham and Enos. No doubt Ham and Enos and the others had witnessed the slaughter of their mothers.
Let the new life begin. The Air Force used the chimps to gauge the effects of space travel on humans. The small chimps were spun in giant centrifuges. They were placed in decompression chambers to see how long it took them to lose consciousness. They were exposed to powerful G forces—forces due to acceleration felt by pilots or by riders on roller coasters.
Three-year-old Ham was the first chimpanzee to be rocketed into space. This occurred on January 31, 1961. NASA archives record “a series of harrowing mischances,” but Ham returned alive. The results pleased astronauts and capsule engineers, and three months later Alan Shepard became the first American to be shot into space.
Enos, age five, was launched on November 29, 1961. Enos had undergone a meticulous year of training to perform certain operations upon receiving certain prompts. Upon launch, however, the capsule malfunctioned, and Enos received an electric shock each time he acted correctly. Nevertheless, he continued to make the moves he knew to be right, shock after shock after shock. He orbited earth two times and returned alive.
The following year John Glenn orbited earth three times. On March 1, 1962, in lower Manhattan, four million people greeted Glenn and two fellow astronauts with a huge ticker-tape parade, confetti falling like snow at Christmas.
Ham and Enos were transferred to “hazardous environments” duty. To test the new technology of seatbelts, they were strapped into sleds, whizzed along at 30, 50, 100 mph, slammed into walls.
By the 1970s the Air Force, done with the chimps, leased them out for biomedical research. These highly sociable primates, now adults in their 20s, were stored in cement-block cells with bars in front, but with no windows between cells to provide contact with fellow chimps.
After such a life, Ham died. After such a life, Enos died.
7. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
The fossilized skeleton of Lucy, discovered in 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia, was the oldest hominid remains then known. Lucy died 3.2 million years ago. While her discoverers, Donald Johanson and his team, were looking at her bones in amazement, a Beatles tape played in the background. They named Lucy after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Lucy was short, about four feet high, with long arms for climbing. She stood upright. That’s the important thing. Her proper species name is Australopithecus afarensis. From her group, several species of hominids evolved. Homo erectus evolved. We evolved. That’s the old story. It’s a nice story. It has a nice beginning, middle, and end.
But it’s probably not true. Bones speak, but they do not enunciate. Skulls and femurs and molars are measured and compared and recompared, and theories replace theories. Thighbones and skulls “from the same species” placed side by side look different, and fossilized bones, alas, do not produce DNA.
In 2000 the creation story got a new beginning. About six million years ago, our human ancestor split off from Pan prior. This missing link, this halfape, half-hominid has been the longed-for find, the physical anthropologist’s Holy Grail. In Kenya, in 2000, scientists Martin Pickford and Brigette Senut discovered a very few very old bones. Orrorin tugenensis lived six million years ago, the time our oldest human ancestor split off from Pan prior. These scientists claim that Lucy was not our direct ancestor but an offshoot that died out. That Orrorin tugenensis were our true ancestor hominids. This being stood upright, but also displayed the attributes of knuckle-walking, treeclimbing apes. Donald Johanson thinks they might be right.
After that (if that really was that), perhaps 15 different species of humans evolved. From one million to three million years ago (before Homo sapiens), perhaps 10 different human species lived simultaneously. There were side branches and extinctions. Homo neanderthalensis was one of the side branches, and these beings shared the earth with Homo sapiens, our people, who evolved, in Africa, not so very long ago, 150,000 years ago.
Our ancient mother, the mother of us all, lived in Africa some 150,000 years ago. She was one individual in a world population of Homo sapiens—recently evolved out of Homo erectus—amounting to 2,000 individuals at most. There were other females of course, but their lines died out long before historical times. Everyone alive today descends from this one woman, from one of her two daughters. This is the astonishing news revealed by the book of the human genome, the book whose pages we are just beginning to turn.
9. History and Geography
We are apes evolved into Homo erectus. We are Africans, Homo sapiens evolved from a group of Homo erectus who lived in Africa 150,000 years ago. Not so very long ago. Twelve thousand generations ago.
We are Homo sapiens, alone knowing. We know and we don’t know. We wonder. We wonder where we came from. We wonder who we are. We wonder where we are going. We pose questions.
1. Are we, then, the greatest of the great apes?
2. Is human kindness more human than inhuman cruelty?
3. What makes a cell divide? Am I dividing against myself?
4. If we were once single-celled creatures, was I once a single-celled creature?
5. Identical twins: aren’t we the pioneer clones?
6. How does Earth’s age, 4.5 billion years, relate to our age?
7. If grammar is innate, is iambic pentameter innate?
8. If you could read the book of your genes, would anything there surprise you?
9. Would it surprise you to learn that you were mixed race?
10. Can humans and chimpanzees mate?
11. What will life look like after 500 years of genetic experiments?
12. Is human selection less natural than natural selection?
13. Where did we come from? Where are we going?
14. If a twin is not the same person, why would a clone be the same person?
15. Should art include the creation of life?
16. Is there a gene for creativity, and if so what protein does it express?
17. If a scientist creates a new species, is the scientist the parent? Who gets custody?
18. Do I belong to myself, in the cellular sense?
19. Who wrote the book of life?
20. Is my cell line mine? Is my genome mine?
21. Considering that more genetic variation exists within racial groups than between racial groups, what is race?
22. Was our first mother happy?
23. How can you say that?
11. The Grammar Gene
Linguist Noam Chomsky argues that grammar is not learned, that it somehow comes with our DNA. People in any language recognize grammatical structures, apart from the sounds or meanings of words. Grammar is innate, whereas diction and meanings are cultural and, over the slow centuries, in flux. Others argue that what is inherited isn’t grammar, it’s a propensity to search for patterns in speech. We move from “Mama!” to “Mama get ball!” to “I think Johnny went to the store to get milk, at least that’s what he said he was going to do before he found out he won the lottery”—a construction that will forever elude the most brilliant chimps taught to “speak.”
Did language evolve out of primate vocalizations? Or did it evolve out of an entirely different part of the brain, the part that can practice throwing to improve one’s aim, the part that can plan to marry off one’s unborn daughter to the as-yet unconceived son of the future king.
Our first mother had no words to speak. Our earliest Homo sapiens ancestors were anatomically identical to ourselves, but had no cognition. They had no symbols. They had our vocal chords, but no language. They were osteologically modern but neurologically archaic. They had our bones, but not our wits. About 50,000 years ago something changed. After that, there were bone flutes and symbolic marks and cave paintings. The Homo sapiens who painted on cave walls with charcoal and red ochre had metaphor, symbol, language. The change had to do with the brain growing, not larger, but more complex.
There is something about language that we inherit. Perhaps our mother taught us to speak, but she could never teach a chimp to speak, except in the most rudimentary way after years of work. We are born with something structural about language in our DNA.
The structure of language lurks below the meaning of words. Chomsky wrote, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” This grammatical sentence illustrates that grammar and meaning have about as much relationship to one another as strangers on a blind date. Grammar is the towny. This dude, this thug, knows the ins and outs of the place by heart. He runs the show, and he practically owns the territory. His date just blew into town. She’s all fluttery in this gaudy multipart outfit she copped at various exotic bazaars and flea markets. Half the time she’s got no idea what she’s saying, but she’s easy, in actual fact a slut willing to go along with just about anything.
12. Grammar Gene Mutation
Courtly cows dispense with diphthongs. Chocolate-covered theories crouch in corners. Corners rot uproariously. Refrigerators frig the worms. Catastrophe kisses the count of five. A statement digests its over-rehearsed rhinoceros. Bookworms excrete monogamous bunnies. Blue crud excites red ecstasy. All this during the furious sleeping of colorless green ideas.
13. The Ghazal Gene
The ghazal is an old poetic form, very old, very stringent, very strange. It is older than the sonnet. Or so writes the poet Agha Shahid Ali. According to Ali, ghazal is pronounced to rhyme with muzzle and the initial gh sound comes from deep in the throat like a French rolled r. Like a smoker quietly clearing his throat.
The ghazal goes back to seventh-century Arabia, perhaps earlier, in contrast to the sonnet, which goes back to 13th-century Italy. If grammar is genomic, could the ghazal be genomic?
A ghazal performs itself in couplets, five or more. The couplets have nothing to do with one another, except for a formal unity derived from a strict rhyme and repetition pattern. In the last couplet it is customary for the poet to mention him or herself by name, by pseudonym, or as “I.” In all other couplets this is strictly illegal.
The ghazal is the form of choice for the incorrigible narcissist because it always returns to the subject of the poet, rather like a bore at a cocktail party.
The ghazal has been tortured and butchered in English, which pained Agha Shahid Ali and moved him to write a rant. This humorous but headstrong harangue precedes an anthology of good ghazals in English, Ravishing DisUnities.
Or maybe they’re not so good. Some are exquisite. Others stand in complete violation of Ali’s ground rules. What does it matter?
If you construct a ghazal on a subject, so that each couplet chews on the theme announced in the title like a meat chopper, or if you violate the form by using slant rhyme—say, white/what instead of white/fight —or if you violate the rule of no enjambment between couplets, the form disintegrates. The eerie magic of the ghazal, its ravishing disunity, its weird indirection, falls to pieces. The thing becomes awkward, stiff, forced like a too-fancy, out-of-date party dress purchased at a thrift shop, which, besides missing a button, is too tight and unsightly.
I have committed God-awful ghazals. At first, I missed the point about autonomy of the couplets. Then one day I was visited by the muse, Keeper of Classical Forms. Perhaps she was sent by Agha Shahid Ali, who died of a brain tumor on December 8, 2001. He was 52 years old.
I gutted my ghazals and began again.
14. Genome Ghazal
One earth, one ur-gene, in the beginning.
Mountain air. No green, in the beginning.
Black towers. Steel and glass. Blue dawn
downtown. Pristine in the beginning.
Old friend, did you slip into not-being,
or was death like a dream, in the beginning?
Dirt-obliterated bones, bits of bowls,
stone tools—unseen in the beginning.
Sibilant hiss, susurrus sigh––Priscilla––
What did it mean, in the beginning?
15. In the Beginning
When I was 12, I took up bird watching. On the first day of my new hobby, I set out down the dirt road of our dairy farm noting in my tablet any bird I saw. Crow. Red-winged blackbird. Sparrow—I had no idea what kind. Turkey buzzards spiraling down. A cardinal flashing red in a black locust tree. That evening over supper, I read my list to my brother and sisters, and to my rather worn-down parents.
The next day my sister Pammy took up bird watching. She returned with a list twice as long. Besides my birds, she had recorded a wood thrush, a blackcapped chickadee, and a yellow finch. Our mother put an immediate stop to Pammy’s bird-watching hobby. She forbade Pammy to watch for birds or to put down the names of birds. Pammy was not even to speak of birds. Bird watching was my hobby, not Pammy’s hobby.
Pamela is my identical twin. We each, like everybody else, have three trillion cells, give or take a few. Most of these cells have at their center a copy of our genome. My genome is identical to Pamela’s genome. Therefore, Pamela and I feel we have something to interject into the debate on cloning. But here I speak for myself.
I speak for myself because I am looking out of my own eyes. I live in the Puget Sound region—a land of clouds, salmon, Orca whales, congested traffic, and double-leaved bascule bridges. Like many Seattleites, I grumble at the excessive sunshine in mid-July. I like foghorns and ducks and snowcapped mountains. Rainy Seattle with its cafés and bookstores is a perfect reading-and-writing city, and I am happy here, happy as a coot bobbing on Green Lake. My place, the Pacific Northwest, affects who I am.
Genes don’t even determine all physical characteristics. I have curly hair; Pamela has straight hair. That could be because of the weather, or maybe I have more kinky thoughts.
Once an old friend of mine, long out of contact, saw Pamela in Washington, D.C., jogging in Rock Creek Park.
“Priscilla!” she screamed.
“I’m not Priscilla!” Pamela called back. She waved, but did not bother to stop.
Years later I reunited with my friend, and she informed me of my mental lapse, my rudeness, my inexplicable behavior. I reminded her that I have a twin sister who may or may not have identical fingerprints. In any case, I’m not responsible—for anything.
In my memory, our childhood is fused. For years I told the story of how our mother taught us to read at the age of three. Once I told the story in the presence of my mother, who informed me that Pamela had learned to read at the age of three. I had exhibited zero interest in reading until I was six or seven. I must have thought, as Pammy was learning to read: Oh! Look! We can read!
Twins share the same genome, but they do not share the same environment. One twin dominates; the other carves a niche out of whatever space the dominant twin—in our case Pamela—leaves available. One may be more conservative, the other more deviant.
Our desires send us out on our various paths; they color the persons we become. Pamela grew up wanting to be a scientist, and at eight or nine this moved her to collect white mice and to experiment with questionable liquid mixtures in her chemistry laboratory. When she was 16 (in the bad old days of 1959), she wrote to medical schools asking how she should prepare herself to be admitted. Each and every school wrote back: Girls need not apply. We are formed by our generation, our era, as much as by our genes.
But times changed. After Pamela graduated from college and worked for a decade as a social worker, she came to her senses and got a Ph.D. She is now a brilliant historian of Renaissance science and technology.
I wanted to be a poet, and that sent me down a different road.
If a twin is not the same person, why would a clone be the same person? How could you replace one twin with another? Each looks at the world through his or her own eyes. Place, choice, chance—all affect who a person is. Who could imagine that one person—that ineffable, multivarious, complicated, constantly changing complexity that is a single human being— could be the same as another?
Today Pamela and I are the best of friends, a mutual-aid society, career consultants, fashion consultants. I live by myself; she lives with her husband and receives visits from her college-age daughter.We both write books—utterly different sorts of books.
I’m not a bird watcher, but I like watching widgeons paddling about on Green Lake squeaking like a flock of bathtub toys. They look identical to me, probably because I do not take the time to distinguish their particulars. Pamela would do better. I think she has a Life List, and I think widgeons are on it.
Dolly, cloned from an udder cell of a six-year-old sheep, was born on July 5, 1996. She looked very lamblike, with her white wool and curious eyes. Dolly the newborn had six-year-old cells. She soon went stiff with arthritis. She soon came down with lung disease. Sheep live for 11 or 12 years and in old age typically suffer arthritis and lung disease. Dolly’s caretakers, considering her progressive lung disease, put her to sleep in February 2003. She was not yet seven years old.
Dolly illustrates the difficulties of reproductive cloning. She was just a lamb, like any other lamb, soft and woolly and frisky. But she was one cloning success out of hundreds of failed tries, and even then, she had complications and died young, if you count her age from the time she was born. Since Dolly, other large mammals have been cloned. One calf’s hind end is fused into one back leg. Extreme abnormalities in cloned animals are routine. Life is not easy to create in the lab.
The idea of using reproductive cloning to clone human babies is fought, and it’s fraught with the nightmare of grotesque “successes”––infants with severe abnormalities. Any cloned infant will enter a life of many problems and early death. The most heartwarming argument used in favor of reproductive cloning is that human cloning could provide the grief-stricken parents of terminally ill babies a copy of their lost child. It could give them their baby back.
I am here to speak as one of nature’s clones. A genetically identical being is not the same being. A cloned baby would not return a dying baby to its parents. It would not erase the grief of losing a child. A cloned baby is a different baby. It is an identical twin, not the same little boy, not the same little girl. A cloned baby would start life in the wake of grief and death—already a vitally different life beginning. It would delete neither the death nor the grief over the death of the child that lived for only a short while. Imagining that a cloned baby could replace a lost child is as insensitive as the idiot persons who say to grieving parents, “You can always have another child!”
17. Stem-Cell Research
But stem-cell research is a different thing. Stem cells are fetal cells; no born child is involved. Stem cells are the body’s ur-cells, the first to grow after the sperm and egg join. Stem cells are poised to become any body tissue, from liver to brain to skin. Stem-cell research holds the promise of curing paralysis, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s …
To my way of thinking, stem cells are not a human being but a potential human being. I do not disrespect the right-to-lifers, but I’ve always wondered why they don’t go on a campaign to save the world’s 18 million infants and toddlers who die every year, mostly from diarrhea—preventable deaths of born children.
18. The Ancient One
Looking into this petri dish, into this dish of our own cells, we can see, after a fashion, our ancestors. We can unravel their journeys. It is as if DNA were a telescope with multiple lenses pointed at the deep past, each lens revealing a different scene. The Human Genome Project, added to the archeological breakthrough of carbon dating, added to new archeological digs, added to the study of languages living and dead, added to the study of blood types, added to sonar sweeps of ocean floors that were once dry land, will rewrite the story of who we are and who our ancestors were.
We know now that Homo sapiens spread out from Africa. That is a long story. We know the species spread to Asia and to Europe. Another long story. Then some of them came to America.
The old story is that peoples out of some sort of Asian gene pool walked to the North American continent over the Bering land bridge, when the Bering Strait was iced over, some 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. These people, these ancient ones, evolved into American Indians, into South American Indians, into Cherokee and Crow and Sioux and Mayan. That’s the old story. A newer old story is that they came earlier, in waves, and that some may have come by boat.
Kennewick Man threatened to rewrite the old story. Teenagers found a man’s bones half-buried in a bank of the Columbia River, in eastern Washington on July 28, 1996, during Kennewick’s annual unlimited hydroplane races. The bones were determined to be 8,400 years old, one of the oldest complete skeletons ever found in the Americas. Controversy flared when an archeologist working for the Benton County coroner’s office declared that they were Caucasoid bones (a white man’s bones). The skeleton had a narrow, elongated skull, like Europeans, unlike Native Americans. This would suggest that the ancestors of Europeans arrived in the Americas before the ancestors of Native Americans did.
However, genetic research has uncovered that Native Americans have a common ancestor with native peoples who now occupy south-central Asia. Several of these peoples have narrow, elongated skulls. The scientist who breezily declared in the first week of the find that the Kennewick Man’s bones were white man’s bones spoke in haste.
In the case between Native Americans who want to bury the Ancient One’s old bones and certain scientists who want to examine them, the courts have ruled that Kennewick Man’s bones may be studied. Although DNA has yet to be extracted (it’s difficult and sometimes impossible to extract DNA from old bones), it is now considered quite far-fetched to think of Kennewick Man as European.
19. My Ancient Ones
My ancestors are European. They came out of Africa, just as all of our ancestors did. They lived for many generations in the cold steppes of Russia and in the cold steppes of eastern Europe. During these many generations, groups that would become Asian were moving east, probably along the seacoast. Eventually some arrived in North America. At the same time, groups that would become Caucasian were moving into what were then the steppes of Germany. The earth was becoming colder. Homo sapiens were hunting with more social cooperation than before. Neanderthal bones show that the Neanderthals were having a hard time. They were starving. This was about 20,000 years ago. The last ice age lasted a long time. Then it got warm again. Germany grew trees. Germany grew the Black Forest. Children played in the woods, got lost in the woods. The woodcutter’s children, Hansel and Gretel, found their witch …
20. The Courage of the Ancestors
Back in the forested hills and hollows of Old Germany, the Brothers Grimm went about collecting fairy tales, legends, riddles, ridiculous superstitions. This was in the early 1800s, but the stories they collected were of course much older, handed down from previous generations. Grimm’s fairy tales are known the world over and can be compared to analogous fairy tales from just about every culture.
Their legends are less well known. One of them, Number 328 in the Brothers Grimm published collection, is titled “The Dead from the Graves Repel the Enemy.” According to this legend, the town Wehrstadt got its name—related to the verb wehren, to repel—after this happened: The town suffered an attack by “foreign heathens” of vastly superior force. At the moment of defeat, the dead rose from their graves “and courageously repulsed the enemy, thus saving their descendants.”
21. Grandma Henry’s Love Story
My mother’s father, whom I called Granddaddy, was hard working and rather taciturn. He spoke little, except when he was laughing and talking in Pennsylvania Dutch with his insurance customers. My mother’s mother, whom I called Grandma, talked in a constant stream in English, considering herself to be emancipated from Pennsylvania Dutch. My grandparents did not speak overly much to each other.
One day Grandma told me the following story. Decades after their wedding day, their three children grown, grandchildren already born, Granddaddy told Grandma, “You were the most beautiful girl in the whole town!” At this point, Grandma paused in her telling of the story. Then she said, “Why didn’t he ever tell me that before? I never knew I was beautiful!”
22. Mother’s Love Story
My mother once told me, “I was the adored first child.”
My mother wrote to her mother, my Grandma Henry, every single week from the time she went away to Bucknell College to the time (that same year) she married my father and they had their first three children before they turned 20. She continued writing to her mother every week, regular as clockwork, for decades, until her mother, my Grandma Henry, died on August 29, 1987.
My mother’s own dying was long and painful, involving diabetes and strokes. During the years of her extreme disablement, my father was her caretaker. Dr. Barbara Henry Long died on May 29, 2003, at 11:45 at night. A couple of weeks after she died, in the midst of all the turmoil and arrangements, my father took out a framed photograph of my mother, taken when she was 18. “She gave me this picture after our first date,” he told us. In the photograph, Barbara Jane Henry is young with a long and thinner face. Her brown hair curls softly around her face, and her eyes are shining with happiness.
23. Naming Names
The crime of Christoph Tanger, a German innkeeper, was stealing horses. He was tempted by the devil to associate with thieves. These are the facts reported in the printed account of his hanging, which took place on March 13, 1749, in Gemersheim, a town on the Rhine River in what is now southern Germany. The “leading out” of Christoph Tanger occupied four hours. The procession cheering him on to his execution sang “more than 20 of the finest Evangelical Lutheran hymns.” Upon “entering the circle” it was intoned, “Now we are praying to the Holy Spirit.” Christoph Tanger himself thanked the Lord and, according to his pastor, “repeatedly recommended to me his wife and children, that the latter should be raised in his religion, which is so much a consolation to him. Whereupon under constant cheering up he died without much pain!”
Two years later Christoph’s widow, Anna, and their children arrived in Pennsylvania. Their German became Pennsylvania German, their Dutch became Pennsylvania Dutch. I am here because of the broken love between Christoph and Anna. I am here because of their son Andreas, witness at age six to his father’s broken neck. I am here because of the love between Andreas Tanger and Catherine Lottman, married in 1768. I am here because of their children and their children’s children, ending with my mother. They are the vessel from which my genes were poured. They are the ancestors who gave me this world. They are the lovers who put me into this blue dawn, watching and listening …
Priscilla Long is the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life and Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.
Comments are closed for this post.