Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Inheriting Estrangement

Several years ago I became enamored with a documentary called Traces of the Trade and a book titled Inheriting the Trade both of which were about the descendents of the largest slave trading family in the United States; the DeWolf Family of Bristol, Rhode Island. Both really examine what history we inherit as individuals, as citizens, as a society.

I remember the first time I read a family will in which among the bedding and silverware were the names of people. I was 16 at the time and devastated, absolutely devastated that my family, family here in the great state of New York, owned slaves and treated humans as property. Devastated.

The DeWolf's story began to make me ponder what other intangible things we inherit; what other qualities are passed down through our families. For me I have discovered a history of estrangement. It's really a rather painful issue for me. For those of you who do not know what I am talking about, estrangement is the breakdown of a once harmonious relationship into one that is characterized as, at worst, hostile but at the very least, indifferent. To say one is estranged from someone else is to say they no longer have a functioning family relationship. It is usually a devastating process. I am estranged from my mother.

It wasn't until the passing of my maternal grandfather in 2004 that I began to research my mother's genealogy. Grandpa wasn't keen on talking about family and I never knew my maternal grandmother, she died before I was born. I consciously chose to wait to investigate mom's side. I didn't outright state I would wait until grandpa died; I never wanted to think of that day but I did always sort of think, "well, I'll wait." After grandpa passed away though, my interest in mom's line began to gnaw at me.

I came to learn that my grandfather was estranged from his older sister, Lois. That my grandmother's father, James Fay, along with his other siblings, shunned a sister for marrying a man of Chinese descent. My grandfather's paternal grandfather, Damase Desjardins, had a son from a first marriage that he left with family in Montreal when he moved to the U.S. I don't know what their relationship was like but considering Damase did not attend his son's wedding I suspect they were estranged.

All these relationships clarified for me that my family has passed down an acceptance of such behavior. We've learned that it is okay to lob off the limb of the family tree that, for whatever reason, we just can't get along with.

Well, I don't think that it is okay.

It is rapidly approaching the 1st anniversary of my Aunt Nancy's death. She was the one of my mother's siblings that really did obviously try to keep family together. Her passing was a dramatic event on many many levels. The day she passed I had an epiphany; a striking revelation that I will never lose...

The lesson of family is to learn to accept one another as they are.

You don't have to love them. You don't even have to like them. What you need to do is learn to accept them as they are with some sort of respect. They don't have to live in your house. You don't have to go out of your way to see them. But what you really really shouldn't do is turn your back on them. You might really be all they have; the only person they have any sort of connection to; a connection that was assigned to you.

As the holidays approach, while you're rolling your eyes at the repetition of some family story at some family function you might not really want to be at, remember that this is what you have inherited. Pass on something greater. Teach acceptance. Teach tolerance. Love.