Making the decision to create a family with the help of an egg donor was straightforward. The hard part was getting used to the idea that I wouldn’t pass on my genes. Part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t pass on certain negative family traits, but it also meant I’d never look at my child and recognize familiar features. Most difficult for me was knowing that the genetic tie I wanted my children to have to my great-grandmother, Nanny, would be permanently severed.
Nanny was the best grandmother you could ever hope for and the beloved matriarch of the family: kind, loving, generous—but with a wicked sense of humour that seems to have been passed down through the generations. Who else could I have inherited my sense of fun, dreadful face-pulling, bawdy sense of humour, and wacky dance moves from? She was my mother’s mother’s mother, and I am the very proud bearer of her mitochondrial DNA, so knowing I would not pass on her genes to my children was a real loss. We were the best of friends until her death when I was thirteen. Today, November 14th, marks the 24th anniversary of her death.
But there are other ways in which I honour our—Nanny, my daughter, and me—connection.
When I was only six weeks pregnant, my husband turned to me and shyly confessed he’d already thought of a name for our baby. “You have?” I asked, incredulous. “Well,” he stammered, “if it’s a girl, we should call her Violet. After Nanny. Because if you can’t pass on her genes, you can pass on her name.”
I have never loved my husband more than in that moment. And so our daughter would be named Violet.
The rest of my pregnancy was filled with some of the anxiety you’d expect after a miscarriage and infertility, but two dates stuck in my head: February 26th was the day of the embryo transfer and the first anniversary of the ultrasound where we learnt our first baby, Bean, had no heartbeat. November 13th, my due date, was the day before the anniversary of Nanny’s death. It was close enough that I marveled at the coincidence. It was like a wink from both of them. Here we are, watching over you both, together. I liked thinking of Nanny and Bean together. It gave me a lot of strength.
I don’t remember the first time I met Nanny, or even the first time I was aware she existed. When I reflect on my childhood, she’s just there. All I remember is love. My happiest childhood memories are all with Nanny.
Whenever I eat ice cream cones, I think of her; before finishing hers, she would always break off the bottom of her wafer and scoop a bit of her ice cream to present me with a new, tiny cone. It was a ritual I loved and, one day when she’s allowed sugar, I will continue the tradition with my daughter.
I remember Nanny’s hugs. As a child I travelled a lot, but with Nanny I always felt like I was home. It sounds cheesy, perhaps, but she was the compass in the storm. When I was with Nanny, I knew I was safe. I want to be that predictably calm and loving person in my daughter’s life.
There she is with us in southern Spain and Los Angeles, floating on a lilo and marvelling at how confidently my younger brother and I were splashing around, because she couldn’t swim a stroke. I hope to instill the same sense of adventure in my daughter.
And there I am, standing in her doorway in her modest house, watching as she gives a few coins to a thin boy in dirty clothes to buy penny sweets. I didn’t understand then just how generous that was of her but want to teach my daughter to be so loving.
One of the things you inherit from your family in a non-genetic way is sense of humour. Nanny made me laugh and laugh. She’d jut out her false teeth, kick up her heels, hitch up her skirts and dance wildly, and playfully stick her bum in my face. Already Violet seems to have a playful sense of humour, and I love that she makes me laugh, and I love that she consciously tries to make me laugh!
Now that Violet is a year old, she has a pretty good understanding of language. She’s never been a good sleeper (I think it’s because she’s easily excitable) and even books get her all fired up, so I rock her and tell her stories. Usually I recount the events of the day, but there are two stories in particular that I often share. One is the story of how Violet came to be. I tell her about the special lady who so generously shared her cells with Mama and Daddy so they could have her. Then I tell her about the other lady, “Nanny Violet,” and why she is also so special to me. And when Violet’s eyes are heavy-lidded and she shudders contentedly in my arms, I softly sing her a Welsh song I used to sing to Nanny:
My love is a Venus, a goddess so fair,
No flower more lovely, no jewel more rare:
Wherever you wander, no other you’ll find
So gracious and gentle, so tender and kind.
My darling is merry, my darling is free,
A spirit of beauty, a bird in a tree.
I’ll love her forever, she knows it full well—
But whether she’ll have me, I never can tell.
So this much I know: somehow, in the most unanticipated of ways, through her Nanny does live on. And even though I haven’t passed on her genes, I also know that the mitochondrial DNA that Nanny passed on to me through her daughter and my mother has helped shape the woman I have become; and I, in turn, have biologically shaped my daughter. My genes, my womb, this is the environment that influenced the expression of my baby’s genes.
More importantly, if Nanny were alive to meet her first great-great-granddaughter and namesake, I know she’d love little Violet exactly as she did me: kindly, patiently, with humour, and—let’s be honest—far too many sweets. I try to nurture on the first three qualities and be mindful of the last.