My father, Samuel Holliday, had deep-set blue eyes that were the kind that threw you off. You never knew what he was thinking.

Samuel Holliday searching for trilobite fossils in Nevada in the 1940s. Photo courtesy Anne Holliday Abbott

Statistically only 8 percent of the world’s population has blue eyes, and it is believed that all blue-eyed people have one common European ancestor.

These rarities fit well with the mercurial and unusual qualities exhibited by my father. He was with you one minute and gone the next. He was a linguist who spoke four languages, a teacher and a geologist. Sam explored for gold his entire life, even in places where it seemed unlikely he would find it. He found oil but never gold.

He was fueled by cooking and consuming big meals. Although lean in build, Sam grilled huge roasts laden with garlic on the backyard grill and meatballs filled with cream cheese in the oven. You didn’t want to be the one to clean up after him, but his food was delicious.

Every day started with many cups of strong black coffee and unfiltered Camel cigarettes. He sat at the dining room table staring into space, sipping his coffee and flicking ashes into a full ashtray.

Almost every night after dinner he pulled out either a banjo, a guitar or a mandolin. My mother seated herself at the piano and served as a prop for his playing. He was a minimalist, using standard chord progressions from one of those thick chord books. Sam strummed loudly and did not pick. He laughed hard at his own slapstick music.


In a parking lot, Sam would forget where his car was parked, and often just climbed into the wrong car. His cars were unreliable and many times he abandoned his spluttering in the driveway.

With an Ivy League education and an upbringing in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Sam’s own father was an oil baron working for John D. Rockefeller. Notwithstanding, Sam fit in anywhere with anyone.

I have four blue-eyed progeny who look at me with the eyes of their great-grandfather. My blue-eyed 50-year-old son needs to know what dinner is going to be for the next night while he’s eating that evening’s meal.

The three blue-eyed grandchildren play musical instruments and sing constantly. They even hum under their breath, like their great-grandfather before them. One of my blue-eyed grandsons just graduated from college with a degree in French, my father’s favorite language.

My brown-eyed grandson is the twin of a blue-eyed granddaughter, which proves genes do skip around.

The inheritance of traits is filled with coincidences as well as predictability. DNA contains the code of life. Each of our own gene load is unique, but if we look carefully we can see beyond to the millions of people who came before us. What traits did they exhibit that we have in common? What mannerisms can we see that mirror that of someone on our ancestral tree? It never fails to bring awe.

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