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“What epiphany did you have during your recent travels?” This was my friend’s first question after I returned from a two-week ski holiday with family in Europe.

Epiphany, I wondered? Indeed, I should have had some grand insight, shouldn’t I? Oh, the pressure. I should. But I didn’t. I’m empty. I’m drained. I’m lost.

No. That is not true. I am far from empty. I may have an empty head, but my heart is full and my spirit is robust.

An observation did slap me in the face— more than once. It’s in the jeans. No, I mean it’s in the genes! Actually, I’d had this observation the last time I visited my German relatives, but I’d sort of forgotten about it. And then, one evening, sitting there beside a slender, taller, blond and blue-eyed version of myself, I was overwhelmed all over again by the power of genes.

Britta and me

Cousin Britta and I could not have been raised in more different circumstances. Britta, ten years younger than I, was born in an upper-class German setting. Her father was a brilliant engineer and her mother was an elegant, well-coifed, and socially graceful, college-educated, full-time homemaker. They lived in a classy new neighborhood in a mid-century home with a swimming pool. These facts accentuated their financial and social success in a country where small flats in centuries-old buildings are the norm. I think their wealth embarrassed Britta. And that her mother presumed she’d blossomed into a beautiful, manicured, young lady, sparked furious teenaged rebellion. When I first met Britta, she was 15 and wild as a March hare.

Britta, in her mother's backyard

On the other hand, I was raised by a single mom—who was wild as a March hare. By the time I came along, mom had contained most of her wild streak, but it still crept out along the edges, like toothpaste escaping a flawed tube. I grew up in a spacious, but dark, old, three-bedroom house within which every inch of wall was cluttered with an eclectic assortment of art pieces, and every room was filled to bursting with large antique furniture. My mother’s old-fashioned clothing and hair styles horrified me and I loathed her loud presence at school functions. I so wanted a beautiful mom—like Britta’s. I so wanted a clean, bright, modern home—like Britta’s.

Britta's childhood home

So here we are, now—Britta and I. Both middle-aged women who have lived entirely different lives, been educated in vastly different ways, and have spent precious little time together. And yet, we are as alike as pills in a bottle. Ja, okay, I admit the German genes contain a more brilliant bit of brain DNA than mine. Nevertheless, Britta and I think alike. We react to things in the same way. The same things delight us and the same things infuriate us. Our world view is the same, we share the same zest for life, the same high-energy and strong-willed determination.During the last ski holiday that I shared with my Germans, we marveled at things that seemed so natural to us. It was as if we could finish each other’s thoughts—albeit in different languages. I don’t know how many times we’d burst into giggles about some little wave train and I’d chirp: “It’s in the genes!”

During our last dinner together, someone finally asked me, “What does this mean—it’s in the jeans? What is in the jeans?”

I goggled; my mind spun back through those countless times I’d rattled off this saying. If I thought hard enough, I could register a slight, almost imperceptible, lift of the eyebrow in response to my comment. Language had failed us in a big way. I had to defer to Britta’s son, the young genius who had lived in America with Erich and me for one semester. He knew everything, I was sure of it. He was a scientist. He knew “genes.” But he did not. I had to describe genes to him in a round about way. Suddenly the light bulb flared. Through his guffaws he struggled to lay out the puzzle for the rest of the Germans and then the entire table roared with delight at our shared misunderstanding. The phrase has become part of the Paul family lexicon. It really is in the genes, but unfortunately not always in the translation!

The whole gene pool