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Not just a matter of DNA

It is March — celebrated in the United States as Women’s History Month.

It is Sunday — when The Legal Genealogist often looks at DNA-related matters.

And it is Sunday, the 21st day of March — and that would have been the 95th birthday of one particular contributor to my DNA.

Today, had she lived, my mother would have been 95 years old.

In her family, reaching 95 wouldn’t have been all that unusual. Her mother, my grandmother, Opal (Robertson) Cottrell, was just short of age 97 when she died — she was born in 1898 and lived until 1995.1 Her paternal grandfather, Martin Gilbert Cottrell, suffered eye cancer to the point of having to have an eye removed in the 1930s or so, and he still lived to be nearly 91.2

Good genes on that side of the family.

But whether Hazel (Cottrell) Geissler, called Totsy by family, had those longevity genes or not, she was living-and-dying proof of the old adage that it’s nurture as well as nature. And the nurturing culture of my mother’s family included an early introduction to both alcohol and tobacco.

Sisters 1953

You can see in this photo of my mother and her sisters around 1953 or so — she’s the one in the not-quite-pedal-pushers second from the right — that she not only had a cigarette in her right hand, but she had a beer can tucked into her pocket.

Until the day a lung collapsed late in her life, she was never without a cigarette in her hand. And until she was literally on her deathbed, she was never without a can of beer close at hand.

And like every single other member of her family who both smoked and drank, she didn’t make it past her early 70s.3

It would have been terrific to have my mother in my life longer. Long enough perhaps to shed more of the mother-daughter relationship and to develop more of an adult-to-adult relationship. I have questions that are unanswered because I didn’t know until now that I wanted to ask them.

Our shared DNA says that should have happened — I should be able to ask those questions.

But DNA only takes us so far.

Our own choices, our lifestyles, play a role as well.

A melancholy notion for a bright spring morning, for sure.

But a timely one for sure, as we all today face our own choices.

I’m not one for telling folks what to do. But I’ve seen way too often, including with the loss of my mother, that the “it won’t happen to me, I have good genes” view of life is often a recipe for disaster — not just for those who think that way, but for everyone around them.

So I made sure I was as close to the front of the line for my age group to get vaccinated as I could. Like Alexander Hamilton, I was not throwing away my shot. And I am so looking forward to being able to get together with others who’ve done the same — who understand that our own choices impact our future.

It’s not just nature — not just DNA — that will let us get back to whatever normal is going to look like going forward.

It’s the decisions we make individually.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Nature and nurture,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 21 Mar 2021).


  1. See Virginia Department of Health, Death Certificate No. 95-011808, Opal Robertson Cottrell, 15 Mar 1995; Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  2. See Texas Department of Health, Death Certificate No. 13603, Martin Gilbert Cottrell, 26 Mar 1946; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  3. See Virginia Department of Health, Death Certificate No. 99-018720, Hazel Cottrell Geissler, 23 Apr 1999; Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
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