Here in the U.S., it’s Thanksgiving. For many people, that means a lot of good food and time spent with family. Where I am in Michigan, there is light snow on the ground. Thanksgiving is an American holiday, peculiar to the U.S. but not alone in the Northern Hemisphere as far as Fall harvest festivals go. For me, Thanksgiving is the gateway to winter and the starting gun for the rest of the winter celebrations. In my family, that means Christmas is around the corner bringing a mishmash of Northern European traditions in the American style for a mishmash Northern European and West African family.
Typically, I think I end up posting most of my updates around Christmas time because I have a decent break in my work schedule then, but I got tugged back here with a few thoughts over this long weekend.
Changing Roles and Changing People
Like a lot of people, my uncle died this summer. He did not die from Covid 19. His death leaves my dad alone among his siblings. It’s a position my dad explicitly stated that he did not want to hold. I can only imagine the significant loss for my cousins and aunt, but in my mind’s eye, they are comforted by their love, their community, and their great faith.
My mother-in-law died this summer as well. She didn’t die from Covid 19, but she did die suddenly. She was 68, so I can’t say it was unexpected, she wasn’t a toddler or a teenager, but none of us had any reason to believe she would die when she did or that it would be so fast.
For my wife, losing a parent has meant a lot of uncertainty about things that were once certain. I’m sure it’s the same for everyone in the family. Each person has an amount of inertia, an amount of gravity that binds things together that might otherwise drift. With my mother-in-law gone, we’re all finding our place in the new universe that is surrounding that vacuum.
These losses change the trajectory of our lives. Our families expand and contract they split apart and come together and people move forward in their own direction, maybe in opposite directions. Families change, they move, they become something else. There is a strange timelessness to families but also fluidity. Family is adaptable.
They’ll Just Let Anyone in Here
If you were at my mother-in-law’s funeral you would see a lot of people who share similar traits. A gap in their front teeth or almond-shaped eyes. One group carries high cheekbones, another curly hair. When you get them all together, it’s easy to see that they are related. There are another group of people there though who qualify as “family” but aren’t related in any way. There are a lot of ways that people become family and genetics is not required.
I remember after my grandmother’s funeral, sorting through her pictures. It was easy to see the people who were related to her and the people who were related to my grandfather, but then there were “uncles” and “aunties” and “cousins” who are not related. My parents know them, they’ve been there, they’ve made memories with the family but it turns out, surprisingly, that they are completely unrelated to us. They are still part of the family, but you won’t see them on any family tree.
Having a meaningful relationship within the group seems to be the only bar for entry into many of the families I know. Ancestry.com doesn’t have a slot for them that I’m aware of. These people are the undocumented labor of love.
Who Are All These People?
As I was thinking about “family” I remembered that I hadn’t updated all my trees. It’s a sad sort of busywork, adding death dates to your family members, but it seemed dishonorable somehow to leave them empty. As usual, I took a peek at my DNA matches and there was a new name I recognize. It’s one of my cousin’s surnames. The amount of shared DNA suggests one of a cousin’s children, but I don’t recognize their given name. It could be one of the children of a cousin who moved off to one of the Carolinas or…maybe it was Georgia. It could be one of the children of a cousin a few miles outside of my hometown. I don’t know.
My cousins were my playmates in early life but we live in different parts of the state and different parts of the country. We all pulled or were pulled away in our teenage years. I don’t know all of their kids’ names. They all have their own families, and communities, and workplaces. I haven’t seen most of them since we were young adults. It’s possible I might recognize a family trait if I saw their children or grandchildren in person, but I can’t say for sure.
As I scrolled down the matches, that level of knowing someone completely disappears. I see people who are related to my great-grandparents, or to my second great-grandparents. I have no idea who they are or how they fit without a family tree. The names are unrecognizable. I could pass them on the street every day and never know we were biologically related.
For most of my matches, I have to hunt down the relationship in whatever trees I can find. They are very much strangers except for an accident of birth. They are part of my family in the strictest biological sense, but something is definitely missing. Shared genomes are not enough.
Binding, but not Always Legally
I was reminded of some great words from genetic genealogy circles. “Everyone has two family trees”. There is the documented family tree and the biological family tree and sometimes those two line up, but they do not have to. I have been told that I share the Thompson family sense of humor with my paper trail second cousin once removed. His wife is the local expert on the Thompsons in Indiana and so I’ll take her word for it. Clearly, though, if you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know that that family trait is not genetic but handed down through shared experience. A gift from the Thompsons that has no blood quantum. This character trait is part of my heredity that transcends mere genes.
The other related thing that I have been mulling over, it the idea that anyone can become an American. It’s a basic principle that is worth remembering on this very American holiday. The idea is that you could move to France, but you wouldn’t become French. Maybe your kids or grandkids. I’m not sure how long a family would be foreign to the natives.
There are certainly obstacles here in America and it’s not perfect. It never has been. There are some real horrors in our history. The idea stubbornly remains though. Anyone can become an American. A U.S. citizen. It’s baked in there right from the start just waiting for our laws and biases and human flaws to catch up with it.
The idea may not be unique anymore but I think it was revolutionary in its inception. We’re somehow special because we’re a club that anyone can be in. The base of the idea is an admission that we choose to support each other. Our capacity to have meaningful relationships and common goals supersede the boundaries that have been presented to us. It’s a social contract signed by people from all over the world.
It occurred to me that “family” is a social contract too, like becoming a citizen. You could be born into a family, but you can also join one or leave one to join another of your choosing. Family is a social contract that sometimes involves biology. Anyone from anywhere can become a Thompson (and they have) or a Smith…or whatever it is that you are. Families are, by their nature, more than the sum of their parts. The ties that bind us together are deep and meaningful and also ephemeral and hard to pin down in our administrative notion of a family tree.
Sending Out Invitations?
Over the years we’ve been able to add some great people to our family. In a way, I guess, each of these chance meetings is an opportunity to extend that invitation to a new person or people. Who can say how much gravity that next DNA match or new co-worker or classmate or neighbor or congregation member will add to our universe or how much we might add to theirs?