Outliers: Family History May Explain Why You’re the Oddball

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My mother and dance partner

In many families someone doesn’t quite fit the mold. After meeting my mother, a colleague asked, “What milk man brought you to the house?” He captured what I had always felt, that I was the family oddball, the outlier. Many children feel that at one time or another, but I had only to look in the mirror to see how I was a mismatch. I had a narrow face, a long strange nose, and prominent ears, so different from the others. When we went to Cleveland to visit relatives, I studied faces to see where I fit in, but was never successful.

Another way I was different was my artistic leanings in dance and music. My mother early recognized my creative temperament and sent me to ballet, piano, and cello lessons. I also sang in numerous choral groups, acted in plays, and learned percussion in high school. My mother loved to listen to opera, but no one else in the family performed so much as I did. Once again, apart from an accordian-playing cousin, none of my many Cleveland relatives shared my inclination.

Only in the past year did I, age 75, find long-buried links to the past. Part of my family line is Bohemian. When I obtained photos from generations back (they settled into Cleveland in 1865), I discovered the short stature, dark hair, and squarish faces, some with cleft chins, prominent in my family. I am short with dark hair, but facially did not fit in among them, nor with my Hungarian roots. Then I studied the wedding photo of a great-great grandmother. There I was–my narrow face, nose, and ears. She was an outlier as well, and a bit of her genes perhaps continue within me.

With regard to music, I learned one of her daughters was so devoted that she hoped for a professional career. That great aunt was the only musician on either side of my extended family tree. Musical skill has a strong genetic link, which is why many musicians come from musical families. So many of my musician friends grew up among parents and siblings who also played or sang. I had to go it alone, which led to a self-discipline that has served me well in many pursuits.

The strangest discovery concerned my late mother, thanks to a letter from an aunt.  During the Great Depression mom left home at age 16 without warning to become a dance contest professional. She traveled about the mid-West to in marathon competitions, similar to the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.” The producer trained her and her partner how to survive the long hours and “win” over the naive local contestants. She also sang on Hungarian radio music programs. When I was growing up I never imagined she had performed. She befriended famous actors and musicians who gave her free tickets and treated her afterward. She stood in their limelight.

What also surprised me was the satisfaction of uncovering these connections. Genealogists like to say that shaking a tree leads to some nuts falling out. Some relatives have thought me a bit nutty for my creative ways. Now I know there is some sap from the past responsible for a variant nut.

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