Family Tree (written 2015)

04/11/2015 09:44

Awhile ago an older cousin I haven't seen in decades contacted me by e-mail. She'd found her way to me through the convoluted net of family and was looking for information for a family tree she was building that goes back several generations, and forward beyond my own to the generation of my children, and the generation following that. Wow! A monumental task, this, locating everyone, persuading them to take part, gathering photos and names and organizing all the information. Incredible numbers of hours and dedication.


I did my part, sending off names and birthdates and photos and got back to day to day life. Weeks or months later the family tree, pretty much complete for my mother's side and in parts on my father's, since their families were intertwined by more than one union, arrived.


I scanned it casually at first. Interested in the names that re-occurred through generations, the places where relatives had lived or were living. But the impact of this project of hers, for me, took a little time to be felt. When it settled I noticed two overwhelming heart responses.


The first was that seeing this wide net of people on paper, people I could walk by on the street and not recognize, people with shared ancestry, with similar or completely different names, was like examining the beginning of a big bang. This spreading out into the world, this net of relationships goes on and on. It is not just a net of shared blood, for there are step-parents and half siblings, and step children, and adopted children. The nuances any family would include. My cousin had chosen an arbitrary starting place with our great grandparents, but she could have gone back in time indefinitely if she had the information. And she only stopped with the forward momentum because that's where we are at in this point in time in the tracing of this family tree. Presumably, it will continue to shoot out new branches, sprawling into an unknown future.


The Buddha's teaching on rebirth tells us that every being was once our mother, our brother, our child. And this seems to the Western mind perhaps an odd claim to make. But looking at this unwieldy mass of names and places and even faces, where photos were included, made me feel from inside the vast idea of family, instead of just defining it in my head. Family is not just my husband, myself, and our children. Not my parents, myself and my siblings. It is not a thing that I can pin down at all. It is a shared sense of connection. So in what way is this my family tree? Well, oddly, at first it felt like it wasn't. How could these unknown people be my family? Then, reading and re-reading, chanting softly to myself names and places scattered in the world, it all turned like a prism in the sun and I began to feel how if these people were, then all people are, my family. For even without a belief in multiple births, this notion of kinship is ambiguous and malleable. This heart response was joyous.


My second heart response was the flip-side to this, a twinge of melancholy. The effort this project represented, brought to light for me how our attempts to define ourselves and construct a place for ourselves in the world, causes us to be drawn to such things as family trees, boundaries and rules of separation. Our human wish to understand means that we choose the small, manageable bits to take into consideration and leave out what is too vast and amorphous. Start here, end here. Include only these. Ignore the rest. Not just in the making of family trees, but in deciding who we feel any sort of kinship with. Rather than focusing on names and marriages, we might focus on country of origin, gender, beliefs, eye color, level of education, lifestyle, income, dietary habits. It doesn't matter. Whatever arbitrary lines we draw, we are choosing to overlook other aspects that we share.


I appreciate this family tree and the lessons my cousin's work brought home to me. When I study it now I see the way it extends endlessly beyond the page in all directions. And nestled in there is the being I think of as me. Part of this flow of life.