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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Ancestors' experiences might shape DNA, but choices shape legacy

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4 2014 5:45 p.m. MST

Learning about my grandmother's experiences growing up gives me greater insight into who she was and who I can become.

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Most of the stories I know about my family history are easy to tell.

Writing about how my maternal grandmother, Lenore, was a whiz in the kitchen, and my paternal grandmother, Fleeta, had wit like a whip — that’s easy. The stories about my great-grandfather who basically walked his family to Oklahoma from Texas, and my uncle who said the darnedest things as a toddler — easy. Even writing about how Fleeta battled cancer and Lenore and I butted heads is relatively easy.

But this next story is not easy for me to write.

I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to imagine it. And knowing that it happened evokes feelings of sadness, compassion, understanding and shame in me that I’d rather not have.

But it is the truth, and therefore, it is a part of who I am.

My grandmother Lenore was the middle child of three girls. She was a sturdy girl, compared to her sickly older sister and her bubbly baby sister, but she had severe asthma her whole life.

She was born at a time that her father, my great-grandfather, really wanted a son. The fact that she was a girl was a great disappointment to him, but he made up for it by calling her “Bill.” He was angry at her a lot, my mom tells me.

He had little tolerance for his daughter’s asthma. When she couldn’t breathe and didn’t have the energy to walk across the room, he would take off his belt and beat her, my mother says. One day, when he was angry at my grandmother and whipping her with his belt, he caught sight of the violent image of himself in the mirror and was shocked. He stopped, and he vowed to my great-grandmother that he would never hit Lenore again, because if he did, he would probably kill her.

True to his word, he never beat her again, my mother says. But he never really spent time with her again, either, and a distance in their relationship remained until he died. Nevertheless, my grandmother adored him and thought he was the greatest man on earth.

I know there are other stories about my great-grandfather that are easy to tell. They are the stories of how clever, and funny, and charming he was — and those are stories I will tell another day. Today, this is the story I think about when I think of how my grandmother’s childhood experience shaped her — and me — forever.

According to a study on epigenetics, research now shows that the experiences of our ancestors can shape who we are.

“Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten,” author Dan Hurley wrote in the May 2013 issue of Discover magazine. “They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.”

As much as I don’t like to think of my grandmother being hurt as a child, knowing her experience is valuable to me. It gives me insight into the woman I knew. It gives me understanding about what might have made her the way she was. And it gives me pause when I find myself getting angry at my own children — anger and harsh words can be equally damaging, and I don’t want to pass that on.

But mostly, knowing my grandmother’s story makes me appreciate her strength and her gift to me. It’s possible her DNA was changed, and mine, too, through her painful experiences, but I don’t know about that. What I do know is that she never hit my mother and my uncle. She changed our family’s legacy.

And that is something worth writing about.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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