Don’t get the blues from your genes

My wife and I have but one rule in our marriage: Under no circumstances am I ever allowed to suggest that she has behaved in some way reminiscent of her mother, and she, in turn, may not imply that an action of mine is evocative of my dad. It is not that we don’t love our parents; we do.
It’s simply that her mother in Manhattan will leave margarine out on the kitchen counter until it melts, is constitutionally incapable of screwing a cap back onto a tube of toothpaste, and still thinks a quarter tip on a 40-block cab ride is generous. Meanwhile, my father in South Florida prefaces every sentence with “you gotta understand,” allows enough mold to grow in the guest bathroom to make cheese for the nation of Belgium, and still believes that the role of Woman (meaning the gender) is to care for him (meaning, simply, my dad).
Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly evident that the DNA my wife shares with her mother and the DNA I share with my father make it inevitable that … we are going to become our parents.
Certainly this is every adolescent’s worst nightmare. But an article by Amy Harmon in The New York Times earlier this month pointed out that it is not merely a nightmare. It is destiny. Harmon reported that scientists have now linked the desire to be a daredevil to a gene, just one more behavioral or physical propensity — along with, say, a predisposition to be heavy or drink too much or dance exceptionally well — that is a part of our biologic hardwiring.
For centuries, of course, we have all had some sense this was the case. Haven’t young lovers been told forever to study the parents of their betrothed? Just think of the number of professional ballplayers whose children have become ballplayers, or the daughters and sons of novelists who have become writers, too. It is not, apparently, all nurture or the simple proximity of the child to the ballpark or the books.
The notion that we are indeed our DNA will actually be a little reassuring for those of us in need of a ready-made excuse for all sorts of compulsive behavior. Conversely, there might be some of us a little frustrated by the implicit suggestion that our achievements are more likely the result of good genes than hard work.
My wife and I found this whole concept terrifying when we first read about it because we envisioned our parents’ idiosyncrasies. But then, as we commiserated with each other, we realized something as unexpected as it was ironic. While she was left petrified by the notion that someday she might be handing a cabbie a quarter or reading a newspaper made transparent by oleo ooze, I wasn’t alarmed. The truth is, I get a real charge out of my mother-in-law. When I’m in New York on business, we go to movies together or we have breakfast or brunch together. She still reads books — often. And she writes lengthy critiques of my books for me. So what if the toothpaste tube in her bathroom looks like a perch for a pigeon with diarrhea? She lives alone. It’s her toothpaste.
Likewise, we discovered that my wife is infinitely more forgiving of my father’s eccentricities than I am. She pointed out to me that there are infinitely worse fates than growing into an older man who likes to cook for his family, doesn’t allow a litany of ailments and infirmities to keep him off the golf course, and helps to take care of his friends with Alzheimer’s, bad tickers and failing eyesight. So what if the tile in his guest bathroom has more living creatures on it than an acre of rain forest? It’s his bathroom.
I’m still not sure that my wife and I are prepared to play the in-law card with each other. But the idea that we might eventually morph into our parents is considerably less alarming.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 25, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.