We are a compilation of all those who came before us.
I was lucky enough to have the time to truly get to know my amazing grandmother. At 85 years of age, after recovering from a mastectomy due to breast cancer, she traveled on her own to walk the Great Wall of China. It may have only been a few steps, but they represented a huge milestone and achievement. She continued to show everyone that life only ends when you give up.
I was in awe of that ability to be her own person regardless of the social norms forced on women in that day and age. She was born at the turn of the 20th century, before women even had the right to vote! All the stories she shared of a time and age so different from mine reinforced how hard it had been to pursue her own dreams. She was successful in business after my grandfather died when women weren’t allowed many freedoms.
Because of women like her, my social constraints were far less intrusive. Her willingness to follow a path, regardless of company, encouraged me to go into a then predominantly male profession and travel alone when others couldn’t attend. Understanding that being on our own encourages a unique strength and openness. In groups, we tend to stay within our comfort zone. Confining yourself to preconceived parameters due to fear was never an option. I was 23 when she passed away, but she shaped the woman I’d become.
Whenever my daughter laughs I hear my grandmother. Her beautiful, infectious laugh passed down to a child with similar energy and capacity for life. My daughter never knew that great lady, but she inherited her tenacity and courage -already traveling the world, with friends or alone, and moved to a city that offered her options even when she knew no one there. As her Great Grandma taught us, nothing can get in the way of living life to the fullest except ourselves.
According to my mother, my daughter also inherited her Great Aunts ability to act, charm, and win over a room. Like the woman she never met, she was a born actor, living for the limelight. Pictures of her as a little girl, posturing to depict just the right mood are uncannily like the ones my mother showed me of my Aunt.
My father died when she was only a year old, but I can still see his charisma and effortless ability to interact with people of all ages. Like with him, whenever she enters a room, all eyes follow.
When I was young, I was the spitting image of my father. Our baby pictures are impossible to tell apart, causing a young girl endless fears she’d turn into a large, hairy man someday! Thankfully, the older I got, the more his face faded when I looked into the mirror and the more my mother’s appeared. But his eyes continue to shape my features, giving me comfort they’re both still by my side as I take on the world.
I grew up in a family of lawyers. Initially thinking I’d follow in their footsteps, it turned out I heard a different calling. As a little girl all I wanted was to care for, nurture, and help people. A lawyer does this too, but a doctor does it without having to defend the guilty. Living with lawyers I understood the reasoning behind everybody deserving a vigorous defense so in the end, justice can be served. But in medicine, there’s no ambiguity who that is.
When I was 7, I stumbled onto a picture of my great uncle with Pope Pius XII at his retreat in Castle Gandolfo (his version of Camp David).
I was fascinated to learn decades before there had been a lone physician. He was a world renowned pulmonologist who treated the Pope’s tuberculosis. That part of my genetics spurred a bigger interest in becoming the doctor I am today.
When I see mannerisms in younger generations mirroring those long gone, it shifts me back to those same gestures I saw when growing up. We all know that feeling when we see in our loved ones the nervous twitch Great Aunt Josie used to have, or the incredibly shy demeanor and poses from Great Great Uncle Joe. The particular way a toast is buttered or the crooked smile that skips a generation. Those idiosyncrasies so eerily similar to those they never knew, makes us smile, knowing that person lives on in our children.
As a result, we’ve grown more fascinated than ever with absorbing every aspect of our history. With the surging new DNA test kits, we‘re able to uncover a past previously unknown. Especially when so many families are spread across the globe or relatives aren’t available to share. I’ve heard of some learning about entire branches of their family tree they never knew existed or even of a sibling that was never talked about. A close friend thought she was the end of her line until contacted by an unknown relative who’d used the DNA tests. A strange and somewhat disturbing knowledge in the beginning meant she had a whole new family to love in the end.
We can now see the actual signatures of ancestors crossing into the country from Ellis island, track pictures, articles and certificates to see their lives unfold through marriages, births and death.
Our past has never been so accessible, sought after, or found. That connection brings us closer to our roots, tells us more about ourselves and gives us a foundation we can build upon. It strengthens our bonds and brings us closer together.
What is it they say? There’s no more than six degrees of separation for any of us?
We’re all more connected then we think.