The Washerwoman’s Genes

August 28, 2007

A Drink of New York

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:31 am

Our annual visit to northern New York State always includes a stop in Saratoga, home of famous water: what used to be referred to as “Saratoga Vichy,” a sparkling mineral water that comes in sapphire blue bottles. I always buy some, as much for the containers, which I collect, as for the crisp water inside. And of course, if you go to the spring in town, there’s the stinky suphur water, supposedly good for your health.

This year, on our way back south, we detoured to Sullivan County. I’ve been researching Sullivan for two years—thinking about it, imagining it, conjuring it. More than a year ago I read in the New York State censuses that Jennette was born there. I am now pretty certain—although I can’t prove it—that she’s one of the Neversink Quimbys.


So it was time. We got off the interstate at Kingston and veered west, an hour’s drive to Neversink. We found ourselves in a hamlet stretched along the edge of Catskill Park, a place called Grahamsville in the town of Neversink. It had charm, yet seemed a bit forgotten and forlorn. It was Monday: we tried the door but the library-museum was closed. With family in tow, I hadn’t planned on any hard research, but I had hoped to scan the local-history shelf at least.

We continued west, in search of the “real” Neversink, a village beyond the reservoir. Of course, the town of Jennette’s time is under the water now. The Neversink River was dammed and the valley flooded in fourteen years of construction ending in 1955 to augment the water supply for New York City. (The Wikipedia entry for the reservoir refers to “the ironically named town of Neversink and the aptly named Bittersweet,” a second, nearby, also-submerged town.) Only the southern rim of the reservoir touches Route 55, and you can stand on the dam and gaze north at a truly beautiful ring of low mountains, misty over the icy water. The surrounding terrain is wooded and isolated, pristine, almost primeval—except of course, the landscape is man-made. It’s a sight Jennette would never have seen.


Recapturing the past is impossible, we all know. You go to a place and of course it is utterly changed since 1810, or 1880. It’s nearly impossible to pick out any one thing that might be “original.” But in general, there’s still the layout of the streets, the shape of the terrain, some alleys or odd corners vaguely ancient and decrepit.

Yet over and over I go to my ancestral places to find not even the “bare bones” on which my forebear’s life was lived, but instead encounter the complete excision of their life scene: Jennette’s house in Port Ewen, plowed under the Turnpike; my dad’s childhood home and neighborhood, demolished for the Prospect Park Expressway; and now, Jennette’s entire birthplace, drowned in a reservoir.

We turned south then, to visit Fallsburg, where Cornelius lived on the Depuy farm in 1880, where Captain Burger retired in 1907 and passed away, and where his wife Elsie lived until 1920. This area has seen, one could say, another kind of obliteration: becoming a thronged resort in the twentieth century and then an unlikely mixed-up rural-town-woodland settlement of migrant farm workers, Orthodox Jewish camps, suburban sprawl and shopping centers.

We didn’t stop or explore, so I am not the one to pronounce about Fallsburg. In fact, I still haven’t figured out where in the town my ancestors would have lived. We did follow signs to the Sullivan County Historical Society, and found, of course, that it was closed on Monday.

We headed to Monticello, then. I myself currently live on the outskirts of a county seat, so I had some expectations. Indeed, Monticello took me back, way back, to what my town might have looked like before I arrived, perhaps in the fifties: decidedly unimproved, for the most part, except for the actual governmental center. We did find a cute bakery-deli for lunch, and I found some odd art photos in a thrift shop, and we quickly headed out to our next goal, NYC.

In the summer, when New Yorkers play in the Hamptons, you can walk into the top restaurants and sit right down. We had a four-day personal foodie-fest, dropping in on a whim here and there for our meals in two of our favorite neighborhoods, Soho and Tribeca. Nowadays, the server’s first question is always, “Bottled or tap?” I always have tap, and this time I drank it with a few new layers of complexity. Neversink water races down from the Catskills, mixes with the Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoir supply in the Neversink Tunnel, ultimately “providing nearly half of the city’s daily consumption” [Wikipedia]. So I raise not my wine but my water glass.*

To the Quimbys.

*The Wikipedia entry on Toast [honor] reports that toasting with water is by some considered bad luck, in that it foreshadows a watery grave.


Blind as a Genealogist

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:11 am

Part I

Consider myopia: a handicap, to be sure, but really, as handicaps go, minor, almost, these days, not worth speaking of. And a good thing, too, since it is decidedly inheritable. But how would it have played in a pre-modern society, one without contacts or lasik surgery or even those coke-bottle-thick corrective lenses? Perhaps, before reading was the norm and education a necessity, weak eyesight wouldn’t have mattered that much.

If you’re nodding, it’s probably because you see 20/20. If you’ve been nearsighted since the beginning of time, you know better.

A kid who can’t see far wouldn’t do too well in hunter or warrior school. Likewise, the blurry-sighted one would make a mess around the cook-fire, or possibly get grilled by mistake. Collect firewood? Pick those little-itty-bitty berries? Carve a bowl? Make a spear? Know when the clouds say rain? Walk across an open field without tripping? Hmmm. Just how useless is this person?

How did such a klutz ever survive before the modern era—let alone find someone willing to get it on with him (or her)? I’m proof that some did.

Compensation must have been the name of the game, and nearsighted ancestors must have been masters of the work-around.

Consider: maybe with good hearing and smell, fine-tuned sensory and somatic awareness, intelligence, and the certain personality, you could balance out the deficits of poor vision. With cooperativeness, diligence, and probably a strain of obedience, you could fit into the community. You’d handle domestic tasks, develop a craft perhaps (one that doesn’t involve fire or knives.) You’d stick close to home, to areas where you know the terrain and won’t be tripped up. You’d tend to be an outsider in groups, not easily able to socialize across a room or get a feel for a stranger whose face is a blur. Leadership would be out of the question. You would depend somewhat on the good will of others to leave you in peace and let you contribute what you can, or to help you in travel or crisis. Only your family and your close friends would get to know you—your face to the outside world would be cautious, retiring, reticent, even passive. There might be shame, too, in being a person strong of body and mind who nevertheless has to skulk around like a weakling, who has to live in a state of self-suppression.

On the other hand, a myopian who doesn’t lay low could be in for four ways of trouble. If your productivity is limited by your weak sight, and you are also obstreperous, belligerent, defiant, or uncooperative, you might draw some negative attitudes, to say the least. If you were a risk-lover, bold and brash and unrestrained, you might blunder over a cliff or quickly get clobbered in a fight.

The circumstances of living in a pre-modern society might quickly cull the loud, pushy, assertive nearsighted person, while the quiet, restrained, sensitive, and fast-thinking one would have the right survival skills to get by. And subsequent generations of near-sighted descendents would survive the same way, reinforcing a personality that wouldn’t normally smell like success.

It’s a stereotype: the quiet near-sighted kid hiding behind a book. Looked out from an evolutionary viewpoint, though, the pairing of nearsightedness with a docile, detail-oriented personality created a path for survival. The personality and the eyeballs run in my dad’s family. Is it too much to assume these genetic factors must have been in play in the lives of our forebears in that line? The personality, of course, could be considered anachronistic today when we see as well as anyone else. In my family, the current generation is breaking out of the ancient turtle shell: getting advanced degrees, working as professionals, taking on leadership.

I may never know, of course, which of my ancestors were near-sighted and down which exact line the trait and its associated quirks of personality passed. But pass it did.

Part II

In a recent essay published in The New Republic, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker pokes some serious holes in the biological basis for genealogical research. Although by my reading (and despite the article’s genealogy-bashing title), Pinker is mainly concerned with the way kinship longings are being manipulated by political and religious ideologies world-wide, along the way he hits the foundations of ancestor research pretty hard. He particularly debunks the value of using DNA to learn about forebears.

As has been noted in other sources recently, when we look backwards toward distant generations, the number of our ancestors increases exponentially—and, Pinker notes, the amount of genetic material we can say we have from any specific person decreases exponentially. While we have half our genes from our father and half from our mother, we can only say we have one-quarter of our genes from our grandparents, one-eighth from our great-grandparents, one-sixteenth from our great-great-grandparents, and so on. One sixteenth is about 6%; one thirty-second about 3%, one sixty-fourth is less than 1%. Pinker refers to this as “geometric decay of relatedness.”

Pinker’s conclusion is a rebuke to the genealogical obsession: “Outside a small family circle, the links of kinship are biologically trifling. . . .”

Barring intermarriage within the family, which ties generations more closely together, our relatedness to any one blood relative beyond those we can know personally is mostly fantasy. And our tracing of relationships through DNA gives us not just a severe minority report of our ancestry, but one that is arbitrary. Current methods of DNA analysis are constrained to two genetic lines; there’s currently no way to sift out the rest. Two lines out of four is not many, but as you go backward generationally, your mtDNA and Y-descent lines become two of four, of eight, of thirty-two, of two-hundred-fifty-six.

Will Pinker’s analysis cause genealogy to implode like the housing market, an overvalued commodity shrinking down to a junk investment?

Genealogists are, after all, a technically minded, even scientifically oriented breed. Despite the “batty little old lady” image, most are analytical and intellectual; among those I’ve met, many are retired or still-active scientists, teachers, librarians, and so on. If you read The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record or The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, you’ll see just how academic the field can be.

In other words, genealogists should by nature attend to what Pinker has to say: the very premises underlying your endeavors are scientifically faulty. Though you prize discovering the names and vital records of far-back generations, each time you do so, you halve the genetic influence the person has on you, to the point of triviality.

So, get a life, you genealogist, you.

In fact, if Pinker is correct, our ancestral connectedness is an intuition and not a reality, and our travails more like a spiritual quest. In that sense, it doesn’t matter, he suggests, whom we uncover as our ancestors: we’ll continue to feel, he says, as Oprah did after she learned her DNA analysis showed she was not Zulu but Kpelle, “empowered” by the news.

There actually are a few family researchers who think their ancestors speak to them or guide their labors, but most are far more literal-minded about the process and goals of their investigations. Yet, confronted with the mathematical facts of how minimally any one ancestor’s genes affect a living person, genealogists, I’m pretty sure, will keep on keeping on.

It’s not just stubbornness.

It’s just likely that there is more to genetic inheritance than has been yet discovered. Pinker himself invokes the unexpected developments that often come about after a technological breakthrough: would Faraday have ever anticipated the electric guitar? Likewise, I would add, sometimes progress reverses scientific dogma. Ulcers are not caused by stress, but by a bacterium. Heart disease has an inflammatory component. And this week there is a report undermining science’s understanding of obesity: a virus can cause the stem cells present everywhere in our bodies to create fat.

So, is genealogy is more like a religion than a science? Is it an unfounded system of belief? Pinker seemingly closes the book on that question, but by my thinking, the connection between our ancestors and our identity today deserves, and it will have, more exploration.

Pinker, Steven. “Strangled by Roots: The Genealogy Craze in America” The New Republic, 6 Aug 2007, 30 July 2007.

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