Have you ever heard of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) or the ‘Eve Gene’? This is a tiny piece of DNA which is passed down from mothers only and is traceable back through the generations along the female line. Men are unable to pass it on to their children as it resides in the sperm and dies out on conception, mtDNA is a form of energy bank which powers the cells; and sperm, apparently, has it’s own to enable it to survive its brief but very important journey. If you are a woman, the mtDNA you possess can be traced back in an unbroken line through your female ancestors, in a feminist version of a family tree, to the first Eve who is purported to have lived around 200,000 years ago (this is as far as researchers have got). mtDNA does mutate once every 1000 years or so and that’s why women living today display multiple variations of the primary mtDNA that we are all supposedly linked to.
A few years ago I read a fascinating book called The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes who is a professor of human genetics. It was an easy to read explanation of how Europeans seem to share a common ancestry linked back to seven ancient clan ‘mothers’ that have been traced through studies of mtDNA. People were having their DNA tested and discovering the Ice Man buried under the Alps or the chap discovered in Cheddar was their great great great etc. ganddaddy and it was all very moving. However, I was intrigued. This was the first time I had heard of mtDNA and the idea of creating a female family tree was an interesting one. In our western world, families are usually connected by the man’s surname which is obviously only continued if your son has a son. It has struck me that on my paternal grandfather’s side there is only one male child left, and the continuance of my maiden name rests solely on the shoulders of my young nephew. Ironically there could have been lots of male offspring as my grandfather was one of brothers which should have guaranteed an army of male Grant descendants but there weren’t, only a multitude of aunts and an uncle (more correctly, cousins of my father) who chose a gay lifestyle. My father was the only son to have a son and my brother has only one son.
On the other hand, my mother’s mother was an only child but she had ten grand daughters (I am the eldest – irrelevant fact) and three grandsons. Now there are 18 great grandchildren (I think!) but only four of those will pass on my grandmother’s mtDNA, three of those are my daughters. Only one of my many female cousins has a daughter who shares the unbroken female connection to my grandmother as my aunt had one daughter whereas my uncle had five and they don’t count in my grandmother’s mtDNA scheme of things (sorry ladies!)
I have a son which means that if he has a son our surname will continue on to the next generation. But the idea that my daughters share something unique that has been passed down from my grandmother and which only they and my cousin’s little girl can pass on to the next generation is a little known secret. It’s invisible and nobody in our paternalistic society seems to care anyway!
The thing that I find beautiful though is that the photograph above is a part visual representation of my female family tree. Would you believe, the baby in that group is my grandmother!? That photo is nearly 100 years old. What’s sad is I don’t know anything about the grandmother on the top right or the great-grandmother on the bottom right, not even sure of their names, and yet we share a very physical connection – what lived in them lives in me still. My daughter through me, my mother and right up to the woman in the white cap are Russian Dolls of connectivity but we are just a tiny snapshot on the female continuum of human history. It all makes me feel so small and yet so linked with all the women who have come before me and are hopefully still to come. Wouldn’t it have been amazing if I had taken the opportunity to recreate that photo with my first daughter as the baby and my grandmother sitting on the right hand side so that seven generations of women in two photos could have been documented side by side? Sadly it’s too late as my grandmother passed away just a few years ago and I only found that picture after she died when asking my mother for a picture of my grandmother.
The truth is though that the legacy I pass on is so much more than pure DNA or photographs. In part I have no control over what the next generation inherits from me but I know I can make the choice to leave something of great value. It’s too late for me to take that photograph but it’s never too early to instil in my children a desire to seek for the types of treasure that will outlast the inevitable ravages of time and death.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matt 19-21