23 And You

By Virginia Hughes, December 4, 2013, Matter
Selected for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014

Cheryl Whittle tried her best to fall asleep, but her mind kept racing. Tomorrow was going to be the culmination of three years of research and, possibly, a day that would change her life forever. Around four am she popped two Benadryl and managed to drift off. But in just a few hours she had to be up and ready to go.

Cheryl and her husband, Dickie, are retired, and live in eastern Virginia, way out on the end of the Northern Neck peninsula, which juts like an arthritic finger into Chesapeake Bay. It’s a beautiful and isolated spot, where most people tack up “No Trespassing” signs and stay close to home. The Whittles enjoy their life in the country, but Cheryl was eager that day to make the long drive to meet Effie Jane. She showered, threw on a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, dotted make-up on her cheeks, and scrunched a dollop of mousse into her thinning brown hair. There’s nothing showy about Cheryl, not even on a day like this. She’s short and shy, with nine grandchildren and no pretensions. She grabbed a shoulder bag, heavy with the day’s supplies, and kissed Dickie on her way out the door.

Her anxiety mounted as she drove her yellow pick-up past sleepy cornfields, old plantations, and cemeteries, up the peninsula and into mainland Virginia. Then she pulled into the tiny parking lot of Panera Bread in Richmond. She didn’t have to wait long before Effie Jane Erhardt found her—that yellow truck was hard to miss. Effie Jane pulled open the truck’s passenger door and announced, “I’m here!”

Cheryl and Effie Jane found each other through Ancestry.com, a popular website for people trying to fill in their family trees. After several email and phone encounters, each woman felt a kinship that neither had experienced before. Both were born in 1951, and grew up about 20 miles from each other in the Richmond area. They both speak with soft Southern drawls, had traumatic childhoods, are devout Christians, and, as children, felt like outsiders in their own families.

Cheryl quickly got down to business, retrieving a small cardboard box from her bag in the back seat. She opened the top, plucked out a fat plastic tube, and handed it to her friend. Effie Jane held the tube under her mouth and spit—and spit, and spit, and spit. She had never realized how much saliva froths and fizzes. She passed the tube back to Cheryl, who snapped on a plastic cap, gently mixed the tube’s contents, and dropped it in a clear plastic bag with an orange BIOHAZARD label. Then the two women went into Panera for lunch.

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