"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Genetic Destiny–The Past Always Repeats Itself Always In The Most Unpleasant Ways

A few decades ago before Watson, Crick, and DNA, there was a feeling that people would grow up, learn their lessons, and behave.  The message of perfectibility, progress, and Utopia was true for bad boys and bad countries.  There was hope, after all, that with a little structure, discipline, faith, and will, the world would become a better place.

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Mandy Phillips wondered, however, how exactly her troublesome son could be such a chip off the old block – not her husband’s but Pop-Pop Burleigh Fundy, her own reprobate grandfather who had been born morally defective and whose moral cracks and fissures simply widened with time.  

How and why Pop-Pop had ever enticed Mary Potter to marry him was always a mystery and stuff of family lore.  He was a dashing lover, the story went, and women were willing to overlook his flaws and misdemeanors, feeling, as women do, that he would improve once settled down in their care. 

They were married in Gloucester, Massachusetts, an old New England whaling town known for its storms, fearless seamen, and hopeful brides who would stand on the widows’ walks of seafront houses waiting for their husbands to return home.  That history alone should have been enough for Mary Potter, as clear a sign if there ever was one that her husband was bound for elsewhere and would never return.

He left his bride not long after their marriage but not before she was pregnant with Mandy’s mother.  He eventually returned to their home in New Brighton but only long enough to embezzle thousands before taking off again.  Reports of him surfacing in Tahoe, St. Petersburg, and Wheeling were largely unfounded, but somehow his surmised exploits became legend.

He was a swashbuckling hero, unchained and free, a man of liberty, excess, and adventure.  In any case there was not an honest bone in his body, and whatever epic stories were told and retold at Aunt Treble’s Easter dinner, Pop-Pop was simply no good.  His Errol Flynn reputation notwithstanding, he was dismissed by those close to him as an irresponsible vagabond, and Mandy’s memories, colored by her mother, were of an emotional deviant.

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So, you can imagine her surprise when her son, Peter, turned out turned out to be a clone of her grandfather.  He was the spitting image of the old man from the time he was born and as a spoiled child, as disrespectful as an adolescent, and as dishonest and devious as young adult Burleigh himself.  

“Impossible”, Mandy said to her husband, but was nonplussed at the thought of him showing up again in the family and incensed that he would have chosen Petey as his incarnated home.  She had suffered along with her mother while Burleigh drifted in and out of their lives, a step ahead of the law, flush or broke, and totally indifferent to them; and now endured the very indignity of him returning from the grave in which he had been unceremoniously buried.

This visitation would have been bad enough, but Mandy, influenced by the bad example of her grandfather – never again - and the sound, moral principles of her mother, a devout Presbyterian and politically engaged communitarian, had become a beacon of New Brighton progressivism.  Despite Petey and the unpleasant, unavoidable lesson that nature trumps nurture, that the sins of fathers inevitably are visited upon their sons, and that the world itself was populated with more Burleighs and Peteys than it deserved, she remained committed to the idea of a better world.

As much as she hated her grandfather, she stubbornly kept a portrait of him over the mantelpiece.  

Reminiscent of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, a story that took place very near Gloucester, and in which the portrait of the Pyncheon paterfamilias, a man as devious, dishonest, and immoral as Burleigh Fundy, remained prominently displayed for decades despite his malevolence, there was Old Burleigh in all his cavalier showmanship, peering down at all comers.  Just like Hepzibah Pyncheon, Mandy wanted a permanent image of her ancestor to remind her of the retrograde male that she and her progressive allies wanted to remove from society.

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The portrait, unfortunately, elicited just the opposite reaction.  Like it or not, Burleigh was a handsome, impressive man – the kind of devil-may-care bad boy so appealing to women – and since Petey’s resemblance to him was so striking, New Brighton women fawned over him like a lover and wondered at Mandy’s frustration and obvious disappointment. 

Petey of course, true to his genetic destiny, had a wonderful life.  Never being moored or tethered to any particular moral or ethical code, and gifted with the looks, charm, and a silver tongue of his grandfather, Petey travelled the world without a care. He was offered positions he should never have had, quit them as quickly as he secured them, was a frequent guest at the palace of of the Maharani of Jaipur and her Bollywood beautiful daughter, signed on and signed off to contracts, agreements, and partnerships, fathered many children, and, like his grandfather, kept just enough paces ahead of the law to avoid capture or even censure. 

 He was like Julien Sorel, the hero of The Red and the Black, favored by mistresses high and low, but unencumbered by Sorel’s ambition.

 Image result for images 19th century maharani of jaipur

He was indifferent to politics and had no articulated political philosophy; but his life of individualism, freethinking, contempt for social routine, and refusal to capitulate to prescribed notions was the diametric opposite of his mother’s idealism. Life was to be lived without encumbering consideration.  Dying young was an inconsequential result of a life well-lived .  He had no interest in legacy, impact, or recognition.  He flew under everyone’s radar, noticed only by those who mattered to him. 

True to form he was uninterested in either his great grandfather or his uncanny resemblance to him.  Life was full of unexpected happenings and consequences, and he was fortunate to have been dealt a very good hand.  Those who were attracted to him did so because of his seductiveness and allure, not his forebear’s.  His destiny, his fortune, and his lot were entirely his own; and so the portrait of Burleigh Fundy was lumped along with the family silver and Chippendale chairs in a public auction following his mother’s death.

Petey had not a whit of remorse or regret at his mother’s passing; and even less for the end of family era.  He had as little interest in history or inheritance as Old Burleigh. So there was no portrait of him to replace the old man’s, no storied legacy, no figuring in family history or tales.  One Burleigh was enough, and although aunts and uncles often wondered what had become of him, he was unaware, unconcerned, and uninterested.

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