Monday, January 17, 2011


© Kathy Duncan, 2011

In The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bryan Sykes explains that mitochondrial DNA passes unaltered from mother to daughter and has been doing so for generations. Remarkably, there are only seven different strains of mitochondrial DNA in the world. The world’s family of women is very small.

My own mitochondrial DNA can only be traced for a few generations beginning with my maternal grandmother, Bertha (Brown) Chapman, who was preceded by her mother, Henrietta Elizabeth “Bessie” (Kelley) Brown, who was preceded by her mother, Elizabeth “Eliza” Ann Rebecca (Thompson) Kelley, who was preceded by her mother, who was probably named Arcenia or Sarina (Williams) Thompson. Arcenia Williams is just one of my many brick walls.

While our mitochondrial DNA passes unaltered, we inherit traits from all our ancestors. Some of those traits are more persistent than others.

In 1987 I attended my grandfather W.S. “Bill” Chapman’s funeral. Afterward, we all gathered at the home of my Aunt and Uncle in Avery, TX. There were so many people that we spilled out into the front yard. I was standing with some of my first cousins when a woman approached us and waited patiently for a break in our conversation. I assumed that she was waiting to speak to one of my cousins. They had grown up in Avery while I was always an out-of-town visitor. They knew every one; I knew hardly any one.

As we turned to the woman, she addressed her comment to me. That alone was a surprise. What she said next was even more surprising: “I don’t know who you are, but I know that you are one of Bertha Brown’s grand daughters.” Caught totally off guard, I laughed and admitted that I was. My thoughts were racing. If my grandmother had not died, she would have been 88 years old. Instead she died in 1973 at the age of 73. Brown was her maiden name, so this woman had known my grandmother in her youth, before her marriage to my grandfather. However, she was obviously much younger than my grandmother would have been.

“You have her hands.” The woman continued. “I would know Bertha Brown’s hands any where. I always thought she had the most beautiful hands.”

I had never realized before that I have my grandmother’s hands. I had always gotten compliments on them because of my long fingers. Fingers my mother always hoped would belong to a piano player. Instead, they picked up a needle and thread and refused to practice the piano.

My daughter, who was not born until 1990, has incredibly long, thin fingers that are proportionally even longer than mine. My grandmother’s family would seem to be the source. Mitochondrial DNA in action?

In sifting through some of my files I came across a photocopy of a photograph of my great-great-great grandmother Nancy Missouri (Owens) Kelley, the mother-in-law of Eliza (Thompson) Kelley. It was taken some time before her death in 1912 at the age of 92. In it she is quite elderly, but her hands are prominently displayed. Hands with extremely long, thin fingers. My hands. My daughter’s hands. My grandmother’s hands.

We inherit traits from all our ancestors. We just rarely know which ones.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my grandmother: Bertha (Brown) Chapman.

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