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Hope, Inherited.

When we think of inherited genes, we usually think of things we can see. Eye colour, hair colour, height. We get these things downloaded from our parents, and our parents’ parents, and we can trace it back far down the line.


Some things we get from our environment. Usually, we chalk things like work ethic and political beliefs up to our surroundings. Things we can’t really see but pick up from watching what’s around us. But truthfully, we don’t have a great sense of all the things that come from each source. Genes and environment, they get a bit blurry. 


This year, my father and I met my grandmother — his mom — for the first time. I’m a writer. I’ve always loved storytelling and now my whole life revolves around it. When I met my grandma, I knew I needed to tell this story.


I could write books about her fascinating life — and maybe one day, I will. While the three of us lived astonishingly different lives, there were parallels beyond what any of us could’ve predicted. Today, I’d like to write about one of those parallels.


Hope.


Grandma.

In 1939, my grandma was born. She lived a traditional life, raised in a nuclear family with conventional roles. Her father was a wine steward to the stars and a host at a fancy country club in California. He was tough and strict, and Joy needed to act right, to look right. Rules were important. Protecting their image was valuable.


When she was 16, she got married off to an unkind man. Her mother thought she’d be in safe keeping with him, but it didn’t go as planned. Joy would come home, and her husband would have her peel the wax off the floor and redo it. If she made dinner and he didn’t like it, he’d turn the plate over on the table and dump the food off. He was just plain mean.


Around the time she was wed, she decided she wanted to go to beauty school. She was tired of traditional high school and had dreams of creating art that pushed beyond what was expected of her. She didn’t want to play a traditional role — she wanted to be an artist. So, she went to her principal and asked if she could finish her high school degree by going to beauty school.


They said yes, so long as she held straight-As the entire time.


Joy told me it was hard. She memorized dozens of facial muscles and an endless number of hair-cutting and styling techniques. She spent hours and hours practicing. At 18, she got her license and her high school diploma and began styling hair at her mom’s shop.


It didn’t take long for her to tire of the routine at the shop and, once again, dream beyond what she saw. So, she entered a national contest. She took part in the fantasy division of the competition. Joy lit up when she told me this story, describing in detail how she coloured hair blue and made it flow like a waterfall, counter to gravity, counter to nature. 


She won the contest and laughed when she relayed the details.


“They gave me a trophy with a blue sapphire. They said it was a real jewel, but it disintegrated eventually.”


At 16, Joy was seemingly trapped in a painful marriage for life. But instead of succumbing to what was around her, she followed a voice that told her there had to be something beyond what she could see.


Dad.

In 1962, my dad was born in northeast Kentucky. After a few months at an orphanage, he wound up in Corbin, Kentucky — home of Kentucky Fried Chicken and little else. He grew up in a small house built by his adoptive father, surrounded by two tough sisters and a rigid Kentucky culture. Corbin was a place built on doing things the way they had always been done.


But my dad was a bit of a dreamer. He started playing piano young and quickly outplayed the teachers within his radius. With delusions of grandeur and a desperation to escape the life around him, he headed to college at 18 to study piano. If you’ve ever known a music major, you know that studying piano is no small feat. He showed up to school and flunked out so badly that he had no option but to change course. He jumped from studying music to learning about its more playful cousin — theatre.


Theatre, while a passion, didn’t satisfy him. He graduated with a directing degree and spent some time traveling with theatre troops, playing piano on cruise ships. But again, he got tired of what he could see. So, he went back to school.


My dad got a Master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. He joined corporate America and jetted around the world as an executive for Daimler Chrysler. It’s an understatement to say the path from Corbin to a Ph.D., to a global executive, had been pretty much uncharted before my dad. He, time and time again, pursued the only thing he knew: that there had to be something beyond what he could see.


Me.

I was born in 1999 to two parents who wanted me to think for myself. I don’t think I needed that reminder — I came out of the womb screaming and didn’t stop until sometime this year. I’ve never been able to tolerate misery, nor have I ever been able to keep to anyone else’s proposed plan of action.


While my early life included a lot of traveling around, my middle- and high-school years were spent in a snooty town full of rich people who worked 9-5s and coached their son’s soccer teams in the evenings. It was as suburban, as white, as wealthy as you would imagine. 


Once I graduated, I went to school for theatre… then for psychology… then for nothing… then for political science. I completed my degree quickly, with plans to attend an Ivy League law school. One day, as I was waiting to hear back from schools regarding my application, I decided it would be good to work for a law firm. I applied to — literally —100 law firms that afternoon and moved away to my first grown-up job a few weeks later. 


It didn’t take long to realize that working for lawyers is not particularly pleasant. So, with rigidly high standards and a desperation to have a life I like, I revoked my applications and quit my job after six months, with no other ideas for the future except that I wanted to like it better.


I looked around my town, full of white-picket fences, of people living perfect lives with perfect families. I thought, there had to be something beyond what I could see.


In conclusion.


My brother and I with my grandma, Joy.


Our three generations each lived exceptionally different lives, but when we met, we were all struck by the astonishing similarities. The sense of familiality was obvious and we all had one prevailing leader in our lives: hope. 


Hope as a rebellion. 


Hope as an act of desperation. 


Hope as a willingness to believe there’s something beyond what we can see.


Hope, inherited. 

 

 


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