I I I I I I I  

DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE:
In the blood

Genealogy, the hobby of snobs and arrivistes the world over, is
particularly popular among Southerners, who love to talk about the great-uncle who served with Lee and the great-great- grandmother who grew up on a plantation. And it's not just the Daughters of the Confederacy who pore over census records and death certificates, even those whose ancestors were thieves and horse traders like to play "who are your people" and delight in locating their long lost fourth-cousins-twice-removed.  My family is no exception.  The real obsessives tend to be aging spinsters and widows like my Great-Aunt Bernice, who regaled us with stories about Antebellum events as if she'd personally witnessed them, and gay men, like the antique dealing cousin my grandmother described as "a little fruity, but good people anyway," but even those who don't have binders full of carefully preserved family documents like to brag on past glories and whisper about ancient heartbreaks.  As a child, I spent hours sitting in my great-aunt's lap, listening to her tales of stolen oil wells, families wiped out by influenza, and yes, plantations stolen by Yankee carpetbaggers.  Under her tutelage, I developed a taste for history and drama that I've never been able to shake.  Later, I found a kindred spirit in my father-in-law, who taught me how to catalogue all those names and dates, and inspired me to spend long afternoons in the Texas State Library, attempting to discover my family's English and European origins.

As part of this project, I set out to interview all my elderly relatives (in the process consuming my weight in Lane Cake, chocolate pie, coffee, and sweetened ice tea).  But my most vivid memory of these conversations isn't any of the gossip about long-dead family members, but of my grandfather -- perhaps a little jealous of my tête à tête with my grandmother -- spontaneously volunteering to tell me about his family.  To my eternal shame, I politely dismissed this offering -- I was only interested in collecting family stories, and my grandfather, although he was the only father my mother had known, was not actually kin to us.  He was her step-father, and there was no place on my carefully drawn charts for his history.  In the genealogy game, it's the blood that counts.  So instead of my Pawpaw, I indexed my mother's "real" father; the one who killed himself when she was nine-months-old, and whose family had virtually abandoned my grandmother and her children.

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It took some time, but eventually the absurdity of this sank in.  Who was my mother's real father?  The one who contributed his genetic material or the one who taught her to ride a bike and gave her away at her wedding?  Perhaps this realization was the origin of my disillusionment with genealogy.  It's been years since I've done anything with the hobby;  some people become more interested in family history as they get older and have children, but my experience was the opposite.  I was most interested before I had children; by the time I started raising my kids, it seemed irrelevant.

When I hold my children in my arms, it's like I've been reconnected with a missing part of myself; there's a sense of completeness and rightness unlike anything I've ever known.  Is this because they're bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh?  I believe, fiercely and adamantly, that I would feel the same way if they were adopted.  After all, although the marriage ceremony supposedly made us one flesh, Adam and I aren't actually related, and yet I feel a very similar sense of connection with him.  In real life, it's not blood but shared experiences that make a family.

Genealogy fetishizes blood connections, and maintains the myth that biological ties should supercede all others.  "Blood is thicker than water," the old saying goes (although I'm not really sure how to parse that).  And yet, as much as I love my biological family, many of the people who have been most important in my life aren't actually related to me.  Gina, my college roommate, who's held my hand, literally and figuratively, through most of the angst of my adult life.  Merideth, my closest "mommy" friend, with whom I've spent entirely too much time, in coffee shops all over the world, discussing everything from the gender politics of parenthood to the relative sexiness of Adrian Brody and Johnny Depp.  My grandfather, who never drew a distinction between me and his "real" granddaughter.  These relationships feel every bit as authentic as those I have with my birth relatives.

Years ago, during a discussion of communion, I heard a minister described it as Sunday dinner for the family of believers.  He said that when we take communion, we are sitting down at God's table with all those who have believed, in the past, in the present and in the future: all the family members that I've only met through the family stories and the crumbling graves in the family cemetery; my descendants, to whom I'll be nothing but a name and a few faded photographs; and all the friends and loved ones who can't be so neatly entered into my genealogical tables, and yet are indubitably part of my family.  This image resonated with me, and it's stuck with me through the years.  Perhaps this is why, even when I struggle with doubt or disbelieve, communion remains an important ritual for me.  In addition to its Christian significance, it's a symbol of the ways in which our lives become woven together through ties of blood and marriage, obligation and friendship, and above all, love.  I hold this image of the abundant and diverse family dinner in my heart whenever I take communion, and it is the most reassuring and comforting thing I can imagine.
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 About the Author:
 
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.

 

 

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