Sunday, December 16, 2012

Family and Serendipity: Dancing with the Ones That Bring Us

This week was the anniversary of my father's death. The day before the anniversary, Steve and I took one of our periodic drives to the cemeteries in which my father and my mother are buried (they're buried apart, having separated not long before he died)--a trip of some 200 miles all told, but very much worth the effort.

On this occasion, we remembered to bring along shovels, a crowbar, some sand for the sunken stones of my father and his parents, which we'd noticed sinking on our last visit to their graves, and told ourselves we'd set to rights when next we came there. We also brought a camera and took pictures of the stones, as well as photos of all the family graves in the cemetery in which my mother and brother are buried, where several generations of my maternal ancestors are laid to rest. The photo above is the tombstone of my great-great-grandmother Bridget Tobin Ryan, who's buried in the same cemetery in which my mother, her parents, their parents (with the exception of one great-grandfather), and many other relatives lie.

I took these pictures with a plan to share them at the Find a Grave site, in case relatives anywhere might be searching for information about these folks. When I went to that site and searched for Bridget's name, I found someone else had already created a memorial page for her, with a photograph of her tombstone. I contacted this person, and found he's not really a relative at all, but someone who, on a visit to the cemetery, had been so taken with her tombstone and that of other family members, he'd photographed the stones and made memorial pages for them at Find a Grave.

This history buff has Choctaw roots and lives in Oklahoma. I sent him additional information to add to my ancestors' Find a Grave memorial pages, and he kindly obliged me by adding it.  

And here's the point to which I'm winding around as I think about this discovery that someone entirely unrelated to my family had created Find a Grave memorials for my ancestors: for a number of years, as I've grown older, I've anguished over the recognition that none of my nieces or nephews is even the slightest bit interested in her or his roots. Truth be told, they're not interested in living relatives, except for perhaps their parents. They have nothing at all to do with Steve or me, not even the three nephews who live in Little Rock along with us.

They were raised to be what my elderly Polish friend Stanislaw used to call "consuming units"--young people who fit comfortably into a world of American middle-class assumptions, into the heterosexism and fatuous, destructive gender notions of the dominant culture. They exist in the here and now, and have little interest at all in distancing themselves from mainstream culture, even when its heterosexism has proven deeply toxic for the lives of their gay relatives.

Family, to my nieces and nephews, is a here-and-now atomistic proposition: mom and dad and children. These younger relatives don't have, and weren't brought up to cherish, the wider notion of family with which I grew up, which recognized the significance of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins--and which recognized my obligations to those other relatives, especially to my elders. 

As a result, my nieces and nephews have an extremely limited historical sense. They lack the recognition that their forebears' lives offer historic lessons to them that might curb their enthusiasm for the here and now, for the middle-class American culture with its notion of atomistic individualism and atomistic mom-dad-children family that they take so easily for granted. They lack the awareness that they have family roots within historic narratives that in strong, valuable ways challenge the assumptions of the dominant culture in which they grew up.

Bridget Tobin Ryan bore seven children from 1838 to 1849. Of those seven, four died, all in a row during the terrible years of famine and disease in Ireland in the 1840s: Valentine, Ellen, William, and John, all in infancy. By the time the family emigrated to America in 1852 and 1853 (Valentine the father came first, with Bridget and the three remaining children following the next year), three children were left: Margaret, Patrick, and Catherine.

All of this matters--to me, if to no one else. It matters that many Irish women of the Famine era lost one child after another to hunger and illness. It matters that these women who have been treated as nameless and faceless, who often appear in no records other than their parish records of birth, marriage, and death, have names. That they have stories. That someone remember those stories, and give voice to these voiceless women who endured so much unmerited suffering to keep body and soul together for their families in years of agonizing suffering.

It matters, in short, that someone listen and that someone remember. And so I'm delighted to find that a totally unrelated man has taken photos of Bridget's tombstone and those of her relatives, that he tells me he found these stones so fascinating he wanted to claim these folks as somehow related to him, too, when he first saw their tombstones.

I've anguished for some years now over the fact that many records and artifacts were placed in my hands by my grandparents and older family members, to hand on to younger members of the family as I approached the final part of my own life: I've anguished over the recognition that I simply do not have younger family members--not ones very close to me--who care anything at all about these records and artifacts.

And I'm relieved to find that, when my own family members seem disinterested in their heritage, someone totally unrelated is so fascinated by that heritage. I find it especially fitting, in fact, that the person who uploaded memorial pages for my family members to the Find a Grave site is a man of Choctaw descent. I wonder if he knows that his Choctaw people gathered money to send to Ireland and buy food during the Famine years, and that the Irish people still remember and feel deep gratitude for that gift, coming from one group of poor, oppressed human beings to another group of poor, oppressed human beings . . . . 

Family is sometimes somewhere entirely different than where we expect to find it, no? And where family exists for us, we learn to dance with it--with the ones that bring family to us.

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