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Friday, November 4, 2011

Family Trees

Here in the Northeast, Mother Nature has given our precious trees a serious haircut. The devastation is widespread and heartbreaking to see, but I know that in time, we will recover.

The premature winter storm and the recent death of my last surviving aunt on my mother's side has me contemplating my past, my present, and my future, and how they are intertwined.

The increased frequency of freak storms the past few years lends to the theory that climate change is here to stay and will likely only get worse--a grim prediction, but one founded on common sense and intuition as much as scientific data. Millions of Massachusettes and Connecticut residents experienced first hand how dependent we have become on the comforts of modern technology. Without electricity and phone service, and with rationed gasoline supplies and no internet, they were virtually dead in the water. If not for shelters, or friends and family members who so graciously offered to share the comforts of a shower, a warm bed, and a hot meal, many more people's lives would have been lost to cold and hunger than the few sad deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from people trying to warm their homes with propane heaters and no ventilation.

When I got word this week that my aunt Rita had died (of old age, and unrelated to weather), what struck me most in her passing was that she was the last of her generation from my mother's family. Both of my mother's parents died years ago, and she had lost both of her brothers before she died herself at the age of fifty. My mother's two remaining sisters lived on until my aunt Lillian died a few years ago at ninety, and then aunt Rita, a woman well into her eighties passed this week. Being the youngest of my siblings I didn't have the same relationship with, or memories of my aunt as they did. I remember she was very proud of my skating accomplishments when I was a kid, but because of time, distance, her mental illness and simply the business of life, I hadn't spent much time with her over the years--an irrevocable loss to be sure.

As in all of life there are lessons to be learned.

1) Even the mighty oak can be felled in the span of a moment. Change is inevitable and we must learn to adapt, work together and help one another or we will surely parish. As Jack Shephard from "Lost" would say "We have to stand together or die alone."

2) We only get this one life to know and embrace the family we have, so don't waste time on pettiness or be so caught up in business that we miss a chance to know someone special. Every person in your family (good or bad)has the opportunity to enrich your life if you let them. And even more importantly, we have a chance to enrich theirs.

3) Finally, what I gather from this crazy week is that our future is linked to our past and we should never forget our ancestors and what they have taught us. From the pilgrims who settled our shores and endured the brutality of nature, we learn patience, endurance, and ingenuity. From the early pioneers who crossed this great country and conquered the elements to survive, we learn courage and perseverence. Our ancestors, no matter who they were, have left us a legacy worth preserving. The only way we will survive an uncertain future is to make sure to teach our children the lessons of our family tree so that the next generation may benefit from their experience and so that our history is not lost.

What has your family tree taught you?


  1. PJ, my condolences on the death of your aunt. And I hope you weren't without power too long! We were very fortunate in my area (just northeast of Boston) that we didn't lose power, but my sister-in-law in the northern part of the state was without electricity for a few days.

    As for family trees and family connections, I really don't have much. My mother grew up in Nova Scotia, part of a fairly tight-knit family, but because she moved to Maine when she married my father, I didn't really get to know her family. My father is an only child, and his mother refused to allow him contact with most of the rest of their family, so my dad has cousins he barely knows, and I don't know them at all.

    I sometimes wish I had more family connections. I'm an only child as well, and so it's just me and my parents, and that's kind of lonely sometimes. My ex-husband's family is mostly very close, so at least my daughters have that.

  2. Thanks for sharing Jo. We were very luck here in the Berkshires and I only lost power for a day.

    It is sad for me to think of my children not having strong connections to their family trees. For many very complicated reasons, they have no contact with their father's and don't often get to connect with my family. I'm afraid as a generation, our young people have lost the benefit of tight-knit family community. There are so many distractions and things that keep us from slowing down to enjoy family and friends. Hopefully the Holiday season will offer some opportunities.

  3. I'm sorry for your loss, PJ. Hope things are looking up. I don't think anyone is ever prepared for winter's wrath. It's like a thief in the night, nature's predator creeping in and freezing our lives until Spring's thaw frees us again. My ancestral attributes are what give me the determination to keep going when all the signs say "stop." I come from a long line of "scrappers" who never turned away from a fight, or someone in need. Stubborn, compassionate, and colorful characters, each generation appearing more fearless, twist the branches of my family tree. I see strength in my children that exceeds my own, which scares me a bit, wondering why they need to be so strong. What does their future hold? I am grateful for the obstacles my ancestors overcame so I could be here...reading your blog. Thanks PJ!

  4. I have always loved the image of a tree representing family - with its sturdiness of roots, its green sprawling shade, its blossoming flowers and satisfying fruit or nuts, and its weathering of storms throughout the years. I was just discussing my family line with my mother yesterday and found out that my great grandfather was a writer and started a newspaper. My family tree has taught me several things: (1) both strengths and weaknesses run through generations; (2) every life has a story to tell; (3) family is what you come back to over and over. I am thankful to have a wonderful family. Great post, PJ. You have my sympathy for the loss of your aunt.

  5. Beautifully said Jolene! Thank you. I too wonder what is in store for our children, but I believe that they will be strong enough to endure whatever comes their way. Obstacles are definitely the catalyst for character building.

  6. Thank you Julie. I love what you said about family being what you come back to over and over. So true. When all is said and done, family and friends are all we have.

    Thanks for the condolences.

  7. Sorry to hear about your aunt, Paula. My brother started a family tree and it is giving me a wealth of names for characters in my books. I hope to see you Saturday. Marian

  8. PJ, Sorry to hear about your loss and please accept my deepest sympathy. As for our family trees ... we are the living tree. We are the embodiment of our family's past. When you have a child, you can only raise that child as you saw your mother raise you, and her mother raised her before that. You are then the living past. Cool, huh? Gerri Brousseau

  9. Thank you, Marian.

    That is a great idea. I am compelled to do a family tree if only for my own satisfaction and the benefit of passing it on to my sons.

    See you tomorrow.

  10. So true Gerri. I think we all have it in our hearts to both honor our ancestors for what they have shown us by being living examples of their legacy, but also to do better for our own children. Hopefully we grow as people and as a civilization so that each generation can benefit from our mistakes and move beyond them.

    That's my hope, anyway. Unfortunately, my sons have often reminded me that it is their right to make thier own mistakes. I have come to understand that each of us has our own journey to take and that we must ultimately walk it alone with our souls and whatever we come to know of God.

    If we are blessed with a love of spirit, cling to family and friends, and live by a rule of kindness, all the better.

  11. My condolences for the loss of your Aunt. Family trees containing ancestors, family trees containing leaves. Either way, both serve a purpose. The Harrison House in Branford, CT belonged to my hubby's family who settled Branford in 1644. Lots written and we continue to write about the Harrison's.They have an amazing history. For family trees with leaves, I want the one in your blog PJ. It is gorgeous with its bare branches. How about my heritage? "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

  12. I'm sorry about your aunt, PJ. It's always sad to lose another part of your family. After my mother died in 2008, my sister Kathy said to me, "you know what - we don't have parents any more". It made me so sad, and lonely too. What you said: "I'm afraid as a generation, our young people have lost the benefit of tight-knit family community. There are so many distractions and things that keep us from slowing down to enjoy family and friends." I am struggling with that on a daily basis and arguing with my 17-year-old about that constantly. I want my two kids to know what it means to be a family but they are so connected to their friends I can hardly break through. Suggestions?

  13. Thank you Gail. It's always amazing to me when someone has a record of their lineage that far back. That is so cool. I loved that picture too. The bare limbed tree in the mist just spoke to my heart. It stark beauty and sense of aged wisdom struck me.

    Patti, thanks for the condolences. About your teenage son. I know how mine were at that age and as much as it breaks our heart, it is natural for young men to turn away from parental guidance and explore their own identities. They start congregating with a new pack--their peers and we as parents feel terribly threatened. Mom's especially feel that "cutting off" from our baby boys who seemingly just yesterday wanted to hug us and hang out with us.

    But just as important as it is to let them go, they also need to know that we are there. It gives them confidence to try and to not be afraid to fail--which we know is part of learning and growing.

    My suggestion for finding a balance is to keep the "helpful advice" to a minimum(nothing pushes them away faster), and require at least once a week family dinners with a techno-free policy. Holidays are a great excuse for keeping them a little closer. Food is highly motivating to men--young or old.

  14. Thank you so much for responding to my comment, PJ. You made me feel much better. I am trying to "back off" with my suggestions to him, and it's a fine line between guidance and "telling" which he turns off anyway. And, you're right, I STILL can't seem to adjust to his turning away from me and us as parents. I was the center of his entire world for so many years it has been very difficult for me to let him go.

  15. Glad to help. I think letting go is by far one of the most difficult parts of parenting. From the time we ween them to the first day of kindergarten or their first solo driving escursion, we release them inch by inch. Painful but so necessary for them to become the men they are meant to be. They do come back around at about age 22. The first time my son ever said "Mom, you were so right," I thought I would keel over. At 23, he calls me every week if I don't call him first, and he always hugs me and tells me he loves me--even if his friends are around. Way cool!

  16. PJ--I am sorry to hear of your loss.

    I'm an only child. Since neither I nor my first cousin had children, we are the end of the line on my mother's side of the family. On my father's side, only one of my cousins had a there are getting fewer and fewer of us.

    To answer your question, what I've learned from my family tree is that a story doesn't have to be nice to be interesting. ;-) Sometimes the more unsavory the characters in the story, the more interesting it all is.

  17. Thanks Catie. Being the youngest of seven has been a mixed blessing over the years, but I am so greatful to be part of an enduring heritage. It is a gift. I'm saddened thinking of an entire generation being cut off. One can only hope that there are friends who carry on the memeories and stories of your family. I think one of the reasons I write is to preserve some aspect of myself for future generations so that I will not be forgotten.

  18. I'm so sorry to hear of the passing of your aunt.
    You've written a very special article. As you say we have only one life and it's important to embrace family and teach our young ones the importance of it. I'm an only child, parents divorced for many years. But I am happy to still have my grandmother from dad's side alive, she will be 90 next April and my first son now 22 was born on her birthday. It's very special and even though we don't live in the same state as I wish we could, we visit her every year at least.
    This year I had the chance to visit Sicily and meet for the first time my husbands aunt, cousins and their kids, and I was so happy, wishing my kids would have come to meet them also, at least with facebook we are able to keep in touch. I wish to make a tree for my kids so they can understand the importance of family and where they came from. We are a very international family.

  19. PJ - so sorry for your loss. Seeing as we are from the same town, I'm betting my mother knows of or knew your aunt. We are really all connected (small world, right?). I am a bit of a family history junkie. I love (and mentally save) all the stories my aunts and uncles tell me. Some day, I will write the story of my family (which I have been cooking for almost 20 years). Like all families, my Italian clan, has some great stories to tell. I will have to go non-paranormal for this one (maybe!).

  20. Thank you Lorelei, Grandparents hold a special place in our hearts. It's nice that you've had the chance to know your grandmother and pass that on to your kids. I bet Cicily was awesome for you and your family.

    Thanks Casey. I'm sure you're family and mine have crossed paths over the generations. I think we all have those stories about our crazy family history that we sould love to write down. It's too bad that it takes a death in the family to think of it.

    You all have been so kind in offering your condolences. Much appreciated.

  21. Hmm, what has my family tree taught me? Probably to create more momentos to pass on. There aren't many pictures of my family nor much information for that matter. Definitely something to think about.

  22. lol! The above comment was from me! :)


  23. I know what you mean, Tuere. I have no baby pictures of me at all. By the time I came along (after six other kids) I guess my parents got tired of taking pictures, LOL.