Blog » Family Roots

Every now and then my mother recounts stories about family members distant in time, relation, or memory. These are the aunts once- or twice-removed, the third cousins, the ex-step-brothers-in-law of long-dead great-uncles. Some are blood; others, almost or might as well be. Not that blood or not brings them any closer to me. The stories I mean are ones that mom has to work to recall and perhaps hasn't thought of in years, ones that are recollected from her childhood, or the family stories she herself only heard in turn.

Hearing these narrative echoes of drama, love, fanaticism, kindness, sadness, and hope is inevitably uncanny. Many of the players share family names with the nearer branches of the family tree, the branches I can see, have known, have mourned. But this other family of sepia-toned decades gone by is a family of strangers in all but name, consisting for me only of short, odd narrative arcs heard only every several years, or maybe only ever the once.

Many of these long-gone or long-estranged connections were, however, personally formative for mom. Her tiny immediate family was enveloped in a small multitude of step-relations and first cousins. And shared affection and experience created connections invisible to genealogy. Second cousins twice removed were like siblings, neighbors like second parents. Blood is thicker than water, but which is blood and which water?

The directness and immediacy of my own experience of family sometimes seems small and stark against this richly interconnected tapestry. We are few, self-sufficient, and undemonstrative, in the WASP tradition. Perhaps because of our more southern, urban, and fortunate circumstances, we haven't had the same need for helping hands and sympathetic ears that drew those absent others close.

Their stories have been woven through my upbringing like a ghostly extended family. They persist in misty childhood photos turned second-hand memory of strange faces, in mom's enduring affection for people and places that are thereby illuminated as more than merely names. The family tree is densely supplemented with oral annotations and ephemeral marginalia. The map of Canada is overlaid with traces of love and loss that mark far-flung and unlikely places with symbols not found on any legend.

These uncanny presences are disconcerting because their familiarity echoes from a past I don’t remember. Family history is inaccessibly formative. I consider and write about these traces in self-awareness that I am a product of unknowable pasts that weave in and out of confidently recorded family history. We are made manifest in our individuation by a communal past ultimately made up of both memory and forgetting, and we flower on family trees whose roots are connected to an invisible, intricate web of rhizomes through which both blood and water flow.