In days past, visiting relatives was part of the education of self that was expected, anticipated, enjoyed and embraced. Conversations wove freely through slow moving days of food and naps, Shucking corn, clam scrubbing and clearing the table. Departed family spirits, like visiting dignitaries, joined us at long tables. Their presence gently flavoring the reminiscences with their attitudes and shadows. I have never lost the “OurTown” imagery of their continuing interest in our lives. They are real to me, if not palpable to most.
This week we visited with the elders of my Paternal family in a state steeped in these traditions, the state of North Carolina. Our Matriarch; youthful and energetic, Patriarch; worldly and elegant, these are the holders of the family knowledge for their generation. They hold this position with…reluctance? Responsibility? Freedom? To understand what this feels like, one would have to be in this place where the ties that bind, bind less, and freedom walks with sadness.
In an afternoon reminiscent of generations prior, my Uncle and I dove into his childhood memories illustrated by a box of photos once held by his parents in the earlier part of the 1900s. My earliest impressions are 2 dimensional; photos and stories. The players are close and familiar, but they are still imaginary beings. I have never heard their voice or seen an expression. Our Patriarch has images, memories, observations, feelings, these folks are 3-D to him. When he speaks of them, they show up.
So this afternoon the four of us, no doubt escorted by countless ethereal beings, created ceremony. Without knowing the meaning at the time, we enacted the ancient ritual, the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell would recognize our modern day escapes. We set intention: Find the Sacred Mollusk. We went on a journey: history, architecture, beauty and defeat. All necessary elements in a respectable Hero’s Journey. Homer has set the task, we did our part to make it ours.
We reveled in laughter and shared experiences in the heavy air of this place; oysters and Bloody Marys was our dance. Having secured the feast we settled into the shank of the day. The “blood tied” relatives delved into the “How come? and why did?” of the past, rattling our ancestors out of eternal peace by wondering, questioning the stories of their lives and actions. The other two, less enamored by these intriguing questions, but no less animated, stayed firmly rooted in the present. Their thoughts and opinions swirled around the Yankee game and politics, two generations engaged in the art of conversation in the “here and now.”
Finally here is the question and the musings:
what is this shared experience called family? Stretch it horizontally and there are Aunts and Cousins and strangers thrice removed. Shared genes and shared geography, and so rarely shared views. What is the vertical axis? Where do the ancestors end and we as individuals start?
FAMILY Alphabet, so many words!
ancestors, brood, clan, descendants, extraction, forerunners, generations, heirs and assigns, in-laws, kindred, kith and kin, line, lineage, ménage, network, parentage, progenitors, relatives, siblings, tribe-the Google version left off here, these are mine:
U causes us pause, like a thin finger reaching out to us from our progenitors, “As am I, so you will be…..” Judge gently or not at all.
V volition, as in we act of our own volition not thinking or caring about the heirs and assigns that will look at our pictures and our actions and ask in today’s vernacular ask WTF!?
W why…..why did they do that, think that, go there, marry, drink, leave or not leave, become hardened, get scared, keep going, create, dream and prosper?
X are the countless crossroads of our lives, seen better and more clearly in retrospect, and rarely at right angles.
There are clansmen and women who live on the interstates; moving fast, making time, clearing the obstacles with barely a look in the rearview mirror. Others take a Morning Glory’s path, curling for the sun, twisting around something interesting before moving on, only blooming when the light is gentle and the season warm and the support seems sure. Look to these pictures for confirmation.
Y. . .How about Yaw? definition of yaw
Nautical -To swerve off course momentarily or temporarily: “The ship yawed as the heavy wave struck abeam.” I am personally familiar with yaw, everyone has storms,and waves, and unexpected opportunities, what did you do with them?
2. To turn about the vertical axis. Axis Mundi? May Day tree? Sun Dance Tree? Is that vertical axis? Is it Fate, Family, genealogy, history, gene pools? Who says we need to stay close to the vertical, oblique and tangental is good too. What if you cut the lines altogether?
And Z, we will get back to Z
In one picture we have my Paternal Great Grandfather, immigrant from Germany with Cobbler’s tools. Much later in life, a man with money and property, but also widower who lived decades beyond his oldest son; a wonderful musician who died young. Here is a powerful businessman, head over heart. He is pictured here in his shoe store as a financial success. I wonder about this man, I am curious about his influence on the next generations.
The other photo is a poem written by my Mother for her daughters. Always documenting life’s “yaws”, be they symbolic or catastrophic, she left copious notes and poems and thoughts. So did her Mother, usually while traveling. There was another ancestress who “read the cards”. Her accuracy was tragic when she anticipated her own son’s death.
They have both left legacies for their heirs and assigns, one thoughtfully and with foresight and another with actions that will never be understood by those that personally felt the cold sting of oversight and abandonment. In the alphabet soup that is my unique set of genes these are two personas, mere echoes of the person, a thin transparency of their life.
Spirits still inform, still create thought, although I suspect they have moved on to other projects. I am beginning to recognize the purpose and meaning of legacy. Not the dusty piles of papers or dollar bills but the attitudinal legacy. When my great grandchildren look at my face what will they feel? What have I left behind…?