I Am My Mother’s Mother

Recently, I watched an amazing movie, Life Itself. I highly recommend it. It’s a multi-generational tale, and it shows how the actions of one generation impacts the next and the next and the next. We all are intertwined, part of a legacy. We each carry with us the choices of our forefathers. Here’s a quote from one of the characters in the movie, Elena Dempsey-González:

I’m not sure whose story I have been telling. I’m not sure if it is mine, or if it’s some character’s I have yet to meet. I’m not sure of anything. All I know is that, at any moment, life will surprise me. It will bring me to my knees, and when it does, I will remind myself that I am my father. And I am my father’s father. I am my mother. And I am my mother’s mother. And while it may be easy to wallow in the tragedies that shape our lives, and while it’s natural to focus on those unspeakable moments that bring us to our knees, we must remind ourselves that if we get up, if we take the story a little bit farther… If we go far enough, there’s love.”

This got me thinking about my own family. I’ve written a lot in this blog about how, at age 49, I moved all the way across the continent to Seattle, a place where I had never been and knew no one, just to start over. People tell me that this was brave. I just thought I had nothing to lose, and it turned out that I had everything to gain. But I am not the first person in my family who has taken a leap like this. Far from it.

My mother, at age 48, moved us all from Connecticut to Florida. She, too, felt she had nothing to lose. I wish, for her sake, that that risk had worked out as well for her as mine did for me. I landed on my feet and then some. Her situation became much, much worse, in terms of finances and lifestyle and location. It’s really heartbreaking to think about. She deserved so much better.

Her mother, my grandmother, came through Ellis Island when she was 23. She learned English on the way over, using an English/Danish dictionary and the Saturday Evening Post. She had $10.00 in her pocket, and she was met in New York by a Danish minister. Her husband, my grandfather, worked his way over on a Danish ship.

My great grandmother and my great great grandmother on that side seem to have never left their home places, but my great great grandmother’s husband committed suicide, leaving her with seven children, and that must have been a challenge all its own.

My great great grandmother on my grandfather’s side was born in Sweden but moved to Denmark in her 20’s. That may not seem as extreme, but back then, I’m sure it was still a huge transition into the unknown. It would have been a language change. She went there looking for work. She most likely brought the BRCA1 genetic anomaly to our family as well, and many of us have been paying for that ever since. (Not all legacies are good ones.)

I don’t know as much about my Father’s side of the family, but I do know that his mother came to America from Ireland, young and single, and hoping to make a better life. She met my grandfather because she was a waitress in his restaurant. He liked to say that he only married her so he could stop paying her. In any case, he left her with 4 children to bring up on her own, which was far less than she deserved.

We each carry on a legacy. We each add to that legacy. I come from a long line of strong, risk-taking women. Sometimes those risks worked out, and sometimes they didn’t. But I’m grateful for all of them, because they led to me.


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Does Cancer Run in Your Family?

I hate to say it, but there’s rot in my family tree. Generation after generation, people are dying of breast and ovarian cancer. A lot of good people died too soon. After a while, it becomes obvious that this can’t be a coincidence.

Past generations had to fly blind, which is part of the reason why life expectancies were so low back then. But current ones fly blind only by choice. Science has now identified at least a dozen possible genetic anomalies that lead to hereditary cancer. And there are many types of potentially hereditary cancer: breast, ovarian, gastric, colorectal, pancreatic, melanoma, prostate, and uterine cancers all can be caused by faulty genes.

There are three categories of cancer. Most cancer is not hereditary. It occurs by chance. This is called Sporadic Cancer, and happens at random, with no strong familial history. It is often triggered by lifestyle choices such as smoking or not taking birth control. The second category is Familial Cancer, which is likely caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, but there’s no indication of a specific pattern of inheritance.

The third category of cancer is the scariest one. It’s Hereditary Cancer, and it occurs when an altered gene is passed down in the family from parent to child. Genes don’t care about your lifestyle. They don’t care if you don’t smoke and don’t drink and don’t ovulate and maintain a healthy weight. They don’t care if you’re a vegan and live in a pristine environment. Mutated genes will do their thing simply because they’re there. They are ticking time bombs inside your body.

That means that if you have an anomaly like the BRCA1/2 gene that runs in my family, you have a shockingly increased risk of various types of cancer than the general population. In this case, you have 87% higher risk of Breast Cancer, 63% higher risk of Ovarian cancer, 36% higher risk of Pancreatic cancer, and a 20% higher risk of Prostate cancer.

Yes, that’s a lot to take in. Yes, it’s frightening. But the good news is you get 50% of your genes from each parent. That means that just because a certain type of cancer runs in your family, you don’t necessarily have the genetic anomaly that causes it.

The only way to find out is by seeing a genetic counselor and getting tested. You can find one near you by visiting this website. If you can show a family history, and you have any health insurance at all, odds are very good that you won’t have to pay a penny out of pocket for this test. You visit the counselor, establish your history, give a blood sample, and go back for one more visit for the results. Simple.

If you test negative, you have the distinct pleasure (like me! Yay!) of having a lower cancer risk than even the general population. Wouldn’t that be a weight off your shoulders? (Believe me, it’s like getting an out of jail free card.)

If you test positive, you’ve still done something good for yourself. Now you have the knowledge and you can take steps to reduce your risk. For example, learn the signs of the cancer in question, so that you can catch it in its early stages, so you have a much greater chance of surviving. Increase your surveillance through more frequent or more detailed periodic testing. In some cases there are medications that you can take to reduce your risk.

Or you can talk to your doctor about risk reducing surgery. Some of my family members have chosen to have hysterectomies and mastectomies. I genuinely believe that’s why they are still with us today.

The frustrating thing is that many family members are not arming themselves with this knowledge. In our case, a lot of the men aren’t being tested. But there is even one man in the family tree who very likely died of breast cancer. While this is rare, when men do get it, they’re much more apt to die from it because they’re not doing breast exams, so they catch it late. It’s nothing to play with. The BRCA1/2 gene also can cause pancreatic and prostate cancer. And even if you’re lucky enough to avoid the cancers but carry the genes, there’s still a 50/50 chance you’ll pass these nightmarish genes down to your children.

So if there’s any type of cancer popping up in your family tree, I can’t emphasize this enough. Get tested. Encourage your siblings and cousins to get tested. Share genealogical information with one another. Share this post.

Do it for the people who love you and whom you love. Because there’s nothing so horrible and unnecessary as dying from something that you could have prevented.

Knowledge. Is. Power.


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Generational Changes

Recently I had the good fortune to meet a distant cousin. Her maternal great-grandfather and my paternal great-grandfather were brothers. And all this time she’s lived about 5 miles from me. Talk about a small world.

That part of the family comes from France, and as we talked over lunch, a few things struck me. In the space of one generation, not only did my branch of the family tree completely change languages, but we also altered the way our family name is pronounced.

The language thing makes sense. Of course you’re going to adopt the language of the country in which you live. And even if you don’t or can’t, your children surely will. It’s inevitable.

But the name pronunciation change intrigues me. Why did that happen? Did some relative simply get tired of correcting people? Or perhaps it was an effort to try to seem less foreign, or try to fit in. How long did it take before the new pronunciation started to feel normal? I wonder.

Another thing that really hit home for me as I bid my newfound cousin adieu was the very miracle that any of us become who we are. Think about it. If some distant relative decided to say home instead of going to that dance where he met his future wife, a whole branch of the human family would not exist. If grandma had turned left instead of right on a fateful day, she would have never met grandpa. If some ancient ancestor had been attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, poof! Your whole family history would be history.

We are all a product of centuries of pure coincidence. Yes, each generation slightly alters the path on which your family treads, but hundreds of people had to survive and meet to make you who you are today. What a gift!

Family Tree

Why I’m Not Worried About the Future

It is my great privilege to count amongst my circle of friends two amazing women in their 20’s. Both of them have incredible futures ahead of them, and I can’t wait to bear witness. I am in awe of both of them, because they really seem to have it together, at least much more so than I ever did at their age.

I met Martine in the virtual world of Second Life when she sang at my birthday party. She has the voice of an angel. But we really bonded in the face of tragedy. A Haitian-American, she was affected personally by the earthquake in Haiti. For weeks she didn’t know the fate of many of her relatives, and I couldn’t let her go through that alone. So we got together and raised $2,000 in Second Life to donate to the cause. We both spent many sleepless nights working on these fundraising events, and I was proud of her beyond words.

Martine is deeply religious, extremely intelligent, and knows the importance of family. She’s a compassionate woman who will always be a positive force in this world. She is living proof that her generation is not stereotypically self-absorbed. She will make a difference, and leave the planet a much better place for her efforts.

Alicia was my yoga instructor for a year and a half while I was living in Vero Beach and going to school. To say that this girl is cool is putting it mildly. She has her own style and a unique way of expressing herself that I admire a great deal. She is very comfortable in her own skin and has the tattoos to prove it. She is all about healthy living, and is constantly working toward her own enlightenment. She shares her wisdom through her yoga classes, and like Martine, she has a heart as big as all outdoors.

Alicia is spiritually grounded, and as a single mom, she nurtures those around her. In spite of her busy life, she still found the time to be present for me during the scattering of my boyfriend’s ashes, and I will be forever grateful to her for that support. The thing I admire most about Alicia is she is open to whatever fate throws across her path in life. In fact, she looks forward to those things. I look forward to seeing where life leads her.

As long as I know that there are amazing people like Martine and Alicia in the generations that follow me, I have no worries about this world. Long after I am gone, they will be meeting the challenges that come their way and coming out the other side ready for whatever comes next.

Everything is going to be just fine.


[Image credit: twoleakingbags.com]

Transplanting your Roots

I have always envied people with familial roots–People who have lived in the same house or farm or town for generations, people with relatives right down the street, people with family plots in the local graveyard. Roots imply stability and history and solid foundations that the rest of us, of a more nomadic bent, simply do not have.

As much as I love to travel, experience different cultures, take in varied vistas, and eat new foods, there is something very comforting about coming home after a long trip to sleep in one’s own bed. Home sweet home. I can only imagine that this feeling is compounded when everything and everyone around your home place has been there your entire life.

As people become more uprooted and relocate for work and families become more scattered, it is important to make extra efforts to preserve your connections. Wherever you may find yourself, you can always maintain ties by taking the time to observe traditions.

Traditions are intertwined with roots. Whether they are cultural or religious or simply something one’s family has always done, even if the reasons for these traditions have been lost over the years, these rituals help form a solid connection between you and the place that is at your very core. Traditions can be transported to new locations, and often take on increased significance with distance.

So light a candle, do a dance, cook a meal, or say a prayer. Carry your home within you.

roots4 Xavier Cortada http://www.cortada.com