Monday, December 29, 2008

Family Trees

We use the symbol of a tree to talk about our families. The metaphor or simile springs easily to us. The parents are the roots, nourishing the small plant even before it grows branches or leaves and becomes self-sufficient. Children are like branches that grow, stretching to new heights and spreading outward into the world. This symbolism is easy to see and commonly used and I don’t disagree with it. But I do think that the real metaphor or similarity between a family and the tree has only a little to do with branches and roots. It has more to do with rings.

If you cut a tree’s trunk you see rings in the wood starting in the center and reaching outward. Each year, each growing season adds a new layer to this all important support structure of the tree. Each ring, if you know how to read it, tells you something about the season in which the tree lived during that time or, if you’ll permit, tells you something about that “generation”.

The rings in a tree can tell you the age of the tree. Each growing season leaves a ring and by counting them, we can trace the age of the tree. The color and thickness of the rings tells us about the generation. Some rings are thick and show a good and prosperous time while some are thin and show a hard dry spell. Our families are like this too.

If we took a cross section of our family, a core drilling at the risk of mixing metaphors, you would see the family and how each generation added to it. Each new group of family members and the time in which they lived adds a new layer to the mix. Some live through good times and leave large thick rings, some live through hard times or short growing seasons and leave narrower rings, but each adds to the beauty of the pattern that shows the growth of the family.

And if we are lucky someone can tell us a story of that generation, of that ring. We can preserve it and the people who made it with the laughter, tears and sharing that comes from knowing your family history. I come from a large family. I have the sad task of living in a time when our family’s structure is changing and has changed over the course of my life.

When I was young, my family –and we are talking large, huge, extended family –would gather together for holidays. My great-grandmother was the youngest of her sibling group, but the longest lived. Most of them lived in the Hungarian enclave that is Bloomington/Normal, Illinois. We would load up on Thanksgiving or at various time of the year and go to Bloomington to visit her last remaining brother and the children of her sister and brothers who had passed on before I was born. Being a child I can’t tell you how many people would pack the designated house, but my memory tells me the number was huge. Family came in from everywhere though the truth was that most of us lived in a fifty mile radius.

People would tell stories about family members, each generation including the generations who were gone on. I regret that I don’t remember more of those stories. Yes, Uncle Herbert was just a name to me, I’d never known him, but the stories of his peccadilloes were fodder for many uproarious bouts of laughter long after he died. He was a happy, fun-loving man and my grandmother’s memories of him were delightful to listen to even for those of us who had never known him.

Uncle Herbert was my great-grandfather’s brother. He was a bit wild and now days we’d probably be organizing family interventions for what was surely a substantial drinking problem. Then he was just one of the family characters. He lived for a while with my great-grandparents. My grandmother used to tell stories of lying awake listening to the old clock that her mother’s grandmother had brought with her from Hungary. Like clockwork, just after the clock struck a particularly scandalous hour Uncle Herbert could be heard singing loudly and raucously as he stumbled up the path and past my grandmother’s window.

I remember many of the stories and tidbits that were passed around the table and around the Christmas tree. How my great-great grandfather would come by and pick my grandmother up in his wagon and drive to town with her. “Lissabet” he called her and she remembers him fondly though the pictures our generation has of him are of a stern and somewhat grumpy looking man. My great-grandfather’s brother was spoken of, Hip Rebmann, known as such because he lost a leg jumping the trains. My great-great Aunt Mary, my great-grandmother’s only sister with whom, by all accounts, she never had a moment’s sibling rivalry was spoken of with a hushed reverence.

I remember my great-great Uncle Andy. The last of my great-grandmother’s siblings, he lived on a large plot of land that boasted a small orchard. We children were to play outside and stay out from underfoot. Very elderly at the time, Uncle Andy would sit out back and watch us while the men gathered around and talked. He always scared us more than a bit, most likely because of his glass eye and his thick accent. I’ll never forget being scared so badly I froze when he caught me climbing a ladder to get an apple off one of his trees. He waved his cane at me and shouted for me to get down and behave myself before he gave me a wallop.

And my Uncle Joe Hoeniges. Not really my uncle but my great-grandmother’s nephew. He and his brother George were loud, fun and loving men. Uncle Joe played Santa year after year for the Catholic charities and the fire department charities. My Aunt Lee, his wife, and her sweet, quiet smile. Aunt Jetty who I remember as delicate and always a bit sad. Her son had died in Vietnam and I don’t think she ever stopped grieving for Tommy.

These people live in my memory only now but what beautiful layers they added to our family tree. I worry that soon no one in our family will be able to read the rings. We won’t know what contributions the generations passed have given us. We are changing as a family. I grew up surrounded by cousins and we were closer than some siblings I know. We grew up still very much that immigrant family that deferred to Aunt Anna (my great-grandmother) and while she lived the idea of one of us missing a Christmas Eve celebration or a Thanksgiving was unheard of. Our family pulled in on itself after her death and again condensed after my grandmother’s death.

This Christmas, for the first time in my life, I celebrated with only my immediate family. I love my SO and I love my son, but I miss the connections that held us together as a larger family. My nieces and nephews will never know that type of a family. Z will never know it. I’ll tell him the stories, but now so far removed I don’t know if they’ll make an impact and truth be told I don’t know if I can remember them all or if he’ll care. It makes me sad to think that one day, the rings that were my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents and even myself will no longer be of any significance. They will be undecipherable rings that mean nothing.

And our tree will grow smaller and the wood will be less rich and less beautiful. That is the saddest part of all.


Sandra Cox said...

What a lovely analogy. Thanks for sharing.

BethRe said...

I think you will make a differance in your sons life because you will tell him the stories and see how much happiness you brought to you and he'll want that for himself.
That will be my wish for him

Molly Daniels said...

I used to love to hear the stories about my great-grandmother, and I regret I never asked about my own grandparents' early lives. I'm trying to change that with my parents, and asking questions whenever the kids are in the same room.

Jenny Beans said...

I miss the closeness of my family too, and as my daughter has grown up she hasn't been a part of a lot of what I knew as a kid. My own parents weren't very good at keeping family close together either, so I do what I can to keep her in the know about her family, but I can only remember so much. My husband's family is the same way. It's a shame, but I think that a lot of the troubles the world is seeing now are going to reshape the family bond and connection. Here's hoping some of those old traditions we associate with family can be reestablished.

Anny Cook said...

Write down little vignettes as you remember them. Keep them together in a journal for Z. It's never too early to start!

Georgia Hoeniges said...

Jackie? I hope you remember me. I am Georgia, the youngest child of George and Jettie Hoeniges from Bloomington. I have just come across your blog and have found it so touching. It was a wonderful tribute to three people in our family that influenced me quite a bit. The other observation that caught my eye was your vocabulary! WOW! Well, I will stop for now in hopes you find this and will remember me. Till then.......peace be in your heart at this time of year and always.