Monday, July 5, 2010

Madness Monday: ADDing Roots

Anyone looking at my desk, closet or basement could discern that I'm wildly disorganized. But I have a diagnosis to prove it. When my daughter, along with thousands of her peers, was diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) with a few learning disabilities tossed in for good measure we enrolled in a research study focusing on genetic links. To no one's surprise I made the grade, as did my mother. Some families are musical, some athletic. We flit - at least our brains and conversations do - and getting facts into our long term memory is harder than getting into Fort Knox. That hyperactivity thing passed us by.

Soon after the diagnoses we toured a gallery of samplers at Williamsburg. My daughter clutched her American Girl Felicity doll as we, who could barely form letters with a pencil, gawked at the idea of stitching those same letters. Then we saw it. One sampler, each letter perfect until the bottom, where she signed her name. I wish I could remember the name. What I do remember are the backwards letters - d's and n's reversed. She had evidently had a pattern for all but her signature. It was a revelation. That was the sampler we would have stitched.

I thought about this again while sorting through boxes from my grandmother's house. She kept report cards. Shockingly, my mother's (guess who had the boxes before me?) are missing, but her sisters' are there, and a few of her brother's. These wonderful adults struggled in school. There were enough comments about poor penmanship, absentmindedness and wildly divergent grades to suggest at least one, if not all could be diagnosed today.

Figuring out which ancestors would or wouldn't qualify for an ADD award has become a game. There are code words - high-spirited, dreamy, impatient - that I listen for. Were they smokers? Coffee drinkers? Both nicotine and caffeine are stimulants with some of the qualities of Ritalin. School records are wonderful. There are A, B & C students, and there are those whose grades resemble a musical scale. You can scratch my father's family. There's not a hint in any of the stories, much less the school reports, of anything close. My grandmother's family seem unlikely candidates. But my grandfather's family - a bonanza!

I asked his sister for directions once. Her right hand bobbed up and down as she answered. Every time she needed to decide between right or left she checked to see which hand she wrote with. At 80, it was automatic. She maintained they all did that in her family. It's a brilliant strategy - if you can remember whether you're right- or left-handed. Their school reports were consistently inconsistent. They consumed pots and pots of coffee morning, noon and night with no decaf to be found. Theirs is the only kitchen I've seen where the 30 cup party coffee maker was never put away. Her mother leashed the younger children to a sewing machine or a kitchen cupboard while she worked. Whether it was to prevent them from wandering off, to protect them from their rambunctious older siblings, or because she knew she couldn't keep track of them and work isn't clear. But it worked.

All ten children made it to adulthood despite high jinks that terrify me to this day (think roofs, farm tools, cars). They were teachers, merchants, farmers and public officials, adored one another and lived full lives. That's useful knowledge and a reassuring legacy for those down the line struggling with labels and narrow expectations of what is normal.

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