Monday, September 05, 2005

"Want to see my DNA?" my sister said. She was walking down the hallway, and she grabbed hold of something which hung around her neck on a piece of black yarn. I am used to this from her. My science teacher sister goes off to science conferences and learns various scientific experiments which she can bring back to the science classroom. Once she approached me with a shoebox. "Look! Madagascarian Cockroaches!" There were four of them scratching around amidst some shredded newspaper inside the shoebox. They were large, the size of chicken eggs and almost as thick. "They like warm, moist environments, and if you heat them up them cool them down then heat them up again, they're encouraged to mate, so I'm keeping them on top of the dryer."

When I was a kid, I tried to grow sea horses in the laundry room. I'd found an advertisement for them in a comic book so I sent off for the eggs, and when they arrived in the mail I put them in jars with water. In about a day, I did have something swimming around in the water, transparent little organisms of some sort. Then in another day they were dead. I found out later, they weren't technically seahorses but some kind of common water larva. Not at all what I had imagined or hoped for.

"See?" she said. She held up a small tube which dangled from the yarn. Suspended in water inside the tube was a pale-looking, wormy thing. "We spit into the tube, then added Everclear. Well, I guess maybe it wasn't Everclear, but it was pure alcohol which alters the proteins and...there! DNA." We both stared into the tube. It looked a little spooky. It wasn't like the pictures of DNA in textbooks, or the models I've seen. Those are static and often neatly colored and labeled. This was strikingly organic. It floated around unpredictably whenever she shook the tube. We knew we were looking at The Map of Life. And besides that there was something in it we shared, since we both came from the same genetic landscape. I was awed and uncomfortable at the same time. Like she had just casually introduced me to God.

"Last night, my cats wanted to play with it," she said, "but I wouldn't let them." She took it off and hung it on the door knob of her pantry closet. We went on to other things, but I've thought a lot about it ever since.