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Greene: The Neatnik Genes

05/26/11 5:55PM By Stephanie Greene
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(HOST)  With family reunion season nearly upon us, commentator Stephanie Greene is contemplating the mysteries of the family gene pool.

(GREENE)  I married into a family of neatniks. They are otherwise just about perfect. When I watched my husband's grandmother take off her penny loafers and carefully wipe their soles with a Kleenex, I realized I was in a foreign country.


A fascinating one, it turned out, full of great stories and sweet people, killer desserts and generations of gossip.

Having children turns your house into an eerie laboratory for genetic studies. Nature vs. nurture takes on more urgency when you've got boisterous little examples running around. The genetic influence on the shape of one's nose or whether one's knuckles are hairy has been documented. But personality is trickier: it would take many genes, performing in concert, to affect a personality trait.

Could something as subtle as neatness be laced into someone's DNA ? Studies have shown that identical twins raised separately can have uncanny personality similarities.

It all made me wonder.

Our children have been treated to the gamut when it comes to beauty and order. I thrive in happy chaos then whoosh through the house cleaning; my husband always arranges things in tidy little rows.

My elder son followed his dad's example of neatly displaying his collections of baseball cards, books, stamps and records.
    
At age six, our younger son wanted to collect stamps too, just like his adored older brother. The family dutifully began sending him stamps, bought or culled from the corners of incoming mail. He was given an album, stamp hinges  and instructions on how to use them. We sat back and waited for this fine hobby to provide hours of wholesome, quiet fun.

After a few months in which we could detect no effort spent poring over the collection, we finally asked #2 son how the stamp hobby was going? Where, just out of curiosity, did he keep them?
    
"Oh! Those!  I keep them in a paper bag," he replied nonchalantly. Not for him the loving organizing or fussing with tweezers. Yet who could say he wasn't a collector?

I recognized in his breeziness something of my own approach, which may be  deeper and more irrevocably resistant to my little educational efforts than I'd originally thought.
    
At Grandma B's funeral, we were all standing around in the kitchen, telling  stories. A silence descended on the group. I noticed everyone contemplating a single spot on the floor. Finally my husband leaned down and picked up a piece of lint. The rest of the family burst out in relieved laughter.  Apparently  they had all been itching to pick the lint up, but didn't want to seem finicky.

Clearly I am outnumbered.

Our younger son's room has become as neat as a cockpit. Nurturers will chalk the result up to our years of helping him organize and clean. But I think with an army of neatnik genes like that, it was only a matter of time.

Of course the real test of my genetic theories will come when I start collecting stamps.
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