We’re having good friends over for dinner in a few weeks and my friend and I are discussing what to serve: I’m thinking Italian and I tell him that I want to try my hand at making homemade pasta. A few minutes later, after proposing and rejecting various menu items, I close my eyes to organize my thoughts and it happens — I see my hands as clear as day making pasta in front of me. In reality, one hand is holding a cup of coffee and the other is resting on my lap — but in my mind’s eye I can feel the smooth dough against my fingers as I roll little orrechiete “ears” over my thumb. In reality, I have never made pasta, but in my fingers I have the sense memory of efficiency, of making thousands of these little hat-like macaroni.
This has happened to me before: I wield a hammer or a saw in an unexpectedly smooth manner and I wonder if my cells carry the memory of my grandfather, the master carpenter. I pick dandelion greens for a salad and see, through the haze of centuries, the crone who foraged to feed her family and, without thinking, I know which plants are good and which to skip over. Now, as I read the recent research showing that birds, squirrels and other mammals are born with innate memories, what some are now calling cellular memories, I wonder if we hold all the knowledge and experience that our ancestors acquired.
What a wonderful and terrible gift to have. For along with the knowledge and the skill sets I see and sense generations of troubling attitudes and behavior: the ancestral alcoholic who shadows my 30 year struggle with smoking; the old country husband who beat his wife underlies the extra breath I take not to lose my temper; the great- great- grandmother who wept because she had a worthless girlchild charges my life long tom-boy-ism and rejection of overt feminity. As a society we routinely ask about a medical history going back generations, but what if our genes carry more information than just our health? We’re all familiar with enough psychology to know about the importance of early childhood on our mental health, i.e., how a person was raised, what their parents were like, the impact of addiction on a family, etc., but what if our mental health history, too, goes back much, much, further?
The Chinese revere their ancestors while propitiating them with offerings. Other cultures teach that the dead watch over us and guide us. I would like to believe that if we do carry all of these ghosts and memories that in some way our ancestors live on through us. In my imagination I see us all seated around a giant campfire and I watch as my ancestors pass along these great and terrible gifts, given freely and asking only for forgiveness in return. I look closer through the fire and I see my son and my grandchildren and future generations not yet born. I pass along my gifts to them and I ask for forgiveness, too.