Biology 241

I miss my father at the strangest and, frankly, inopportune moments. For instance, when I am trying to innoculate trypticase soy agar plates with bacterial specimens for Microbiology lab. I’m diligently swabbing my plate when my memory hits ‘rewind’ all the way to the 6th grade.

It was at the tender age of 12 when my father decided that it was high-time I became well trained in the scientific process. Shouldn’t all 12 year olds be familiar with staph. aureus, aseptic technique, and the nuances of managing millions of microbes? Other kids were growing tomato plants under various light sources or turning potatoes into transistor radios – things the average parent could easily handle. My dad, though, was nothing if not a scientist. Dad thought it would be brilliant for me to investigate the actual efficacy of the anti-bacterial sponges that had come into vogue among anxious, germ-phobic housewives.

One summer evening, he came through the front door bearing a heavy cardboard box loaded up with agar plates, mechanical pipettes, sterile swabs, sterile saline, bacteria/fungal/yeast colonies, and other tools of the trade. Free bacterial specimens are no doubt just one of the perks of being well-liked at a major academic institution. Needless to say, it was a long summer of science. My experiment was housed in a small, vacant room in our basement whose floor tiles emanated the sickly-sweet smell of microbes for months after the school year had started. This less than thrilled my mother who didn’t register the same joy I felt over successfully nurturing a colony of staph. aureus or discovering a perfectly round clear zone around a chunk of sponge.

Dad and I were bosom-buddies in our love for discovery, for that eureka! moment. To my 12 year old self, that summer was filled with annoyingly tedious moments – Dad demonstrating the proper innoculation of an agar plate, Dad helping me create my very first lab notebook, Dad pulling me from other activities to ask “Have you checked your plates today?” Yet, no one was prouder when I found a blue first-prize ribbon dangling from my presentation board in the school gymnasium.

My grief isn’t palpable in many of the everyday moments where most would expect sadness to rear it’s ugly head. My memories of him are tightly woven together with certain life events. I don’t merely miss his presences in the house. I miss all of the things we’re not going to discover or being able to call him after one of my labs to report on our latest experiment or recounting how I got to see a new procedure at the hospital. When I’m driving my car, I remember him frustratedly teaching me to parallel park between trash cans he had set too close together, which leads me to memories of learning to drive a stick shift in South Africa that remind me of the phone calls when he would ask “When you coming home, girl?” even though he knew my departure was still 6 or 5 or 4 months away.

It’s only natural that Dad would pop up in Biology 241 and whisk my mind away from my droning professor to that little room in our basement in the summer of 1996 that held not just the smell of microbes, but also the possibility of discovery.

Vignettes

My cat, Fiona, likes to do uncomfortable things like squeezing herself into the narrow well at the base of my window. She only does this with one window in the house – the one in my bedroom that receives a blinding amount of sun no matter the time of year. As a kitten, she fit quite neatly into this space that is all of 3 or 4 inches wide. Now her fur spills over Β in a soft cascade. She likes to stretch her paws out and push against the jamb where window meets wall. The screen is peppered with single strands of tabby fur that wave like little flags in the breeze.

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The rhythmic drumming in my African dance class is intoxicating in a way that nothing else is. My rather ungraceful body often betrays me with twitches of movement I know I am not initiating – a foot tap, a flutter of the fingers. This seemingly innate need to move to the slapping of hands satisfies something in me that I didn’t even know needed satisfying – like the way fried pickles at the Memphis Taproom satisfy a craving, a hunger you never knew existed – for spicy, sour, salty, savory grease.Β 

We move our bodies in wide-open, exaggerated movements – skipping, jumping, windmilling arms, and stomping feet. There is no ballet precision in this room; no rigid lines or sharp, bony angles protruding from underneath gauzy pink. Everything is loose and flowing: the drum rhythms connecting every body, dictating our speed, beckoning our hips to offer sensual, uncensored undulations. Everyone is of “traditional build”. That’s what women in African countries might say to describe their wobbly, unrestrained flesh – pendulous breasts, softly rounded hips, pouched stomachs, sturdy things.Β 

There are no delicacies in the room. These dances are for sturdy people whose movements are wholehearted conveyances of joy or of sorrow.