Scattered branches of the family tree

An ad about genealogy sparked me to think about the question of ancestors and what I hold at the core (see earlier post) and the two combined to a contemplation of the fact that by my generation my family tree was quite small and that many things around that fact impacted me. I often hear that interest in genealogy is for older people but I really wanted to know about my family from an early age.

My father’s mother died when he was seven, his father when he was eight and my mother’s father died when she was nine. So I started off with only one grandparent. My mother had one sister who didn’t marry until late in life, so no cousins there. My father had two brothers and a sister, two of whom were so much older than he was that their children were closer to my parents’ age than to mine. So I only had three cousins who were really in my age group.

My parents didn’t remember a lot about my grandparents. Over my life I’ve slowly found out that there were actually lots more relatives who were never mentioned. It started when I was 16 and hounded my grandmother into telling me more about her family. My mother, aunt and I were startled to learn that my grandmother had five brothers and sisters and more half brothers and sisters than she could count. She never mentioned siblings and neither of her children ever met an aunt or an uncle although they recalled hearing about a sister.

My maternal grandfather was from a rather large family in Tennessee though he had only three siblings. We always knew about his brother, who died before my mother was born, but I was again astonished as I searched family history to find out that he had two sisters, one of whom lived in the same town as my mother’s family and who had children (all of them alive in my childhood) and my mother not only never met any of them but didn’t know they existed! He had a lot of cousins and I’ve discovered that he was in touch with lots of them and took my grandmother to meet some of them but after he died my grandmother never mentioned them to any of us and we had no idea that every time we visited here in Lexington we were three hours away from a passel of cousins in Knoxville.

I recently found out that my mother’s maternal grandmother was alive and not that far away till Mom was 10 but they never met and Mom thought her grandparents had all died before she was born. My father’s father turned out to have three or four siblings that my father and his siblings never knew about and there were cousins they didn’t meet.

As only children often are, I was kind of a lonely kid and since we lived in Michigan while most of the family was in Kentucky, I felt fairly isolated from family. I always longed for more relatives and I’ve always been a sucker for TV shows about large families. What I didn’t realize until I found more and more about all the secrets and apparent rifts was that a deep disconnect apparently ran through lots of branches of my family. The few elders who were around never told the next generation about any of these people and by the time we knew there were hundreds of questions there was no one left to ask.

It makes sense to me that all that disconnecting wound up leading to a tiny generation in which the effort to intertwine lives became minimal. I’m wondering now whether the loneliness I felt was only about having few people around or whether I also felt all those breaks and wounds. I’ll never know if there were giant fights that were never resolved or they just didn’t care enough to bother to be in touch or some other reason led to the scattering of brothers and sisters and parents who then never spoke of one another. But I have a feeling I bear the imprint of their dramas, especially when it comes to feeling isolated.

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4 thoughts on “Scattered branches of the family tree

  1. Once again, Leigh, we have much in common. My mother was orphaned at 9. One of her sisters was adopted, the other was raised with her by an elderly relative of her mothers. My father did not want to trouble himself to drive many hours to visit my mother’s relatives and so they faded out of her life. Her younger sister did not marry or have children and the sister who was adopted out had one child, but they lived in NY and we lived in Ohio..so little contact. I know nothing of my paternal grandfather’s or grandmother’s family, although they lived not too far away in the same state. There was some friction among them, I guess. My father had one sister and she had 2 children, one of whom is one of my best friends, but there were constant battles between my father and my aunt and we did not maintain contact with them after we became adults. Too much hostility to manage. I had two sisters, one of whom had two children but broke off all contact with the family when her children were small. My other sister has one child whom we have occasional contact with. My husband has a brother he never speaks to and a sister he is close to but they have always lived too far away for the cousins to have much to do with each other and there is a big age difference anyway. We have two boys who have very little knowledge of or contact with their relatives, although they have met them all at least once. So, I understand how frustrating it is to have huge gaps in the knowledge of one’s family and I also feel that void as a sadness and loneliness. I think as children we are emotional sponges and feel the emotions of those close to us as our own. Sometimes we cannot separate them and they linger as our own, I believe. I have tried my darndest to bring this family back together as I make contact with my long lost niece and nephew and try to have some connection with Richard’s sister and his step-family. Some of them I don’t wish to spend much time with, but it helps to hear their stories and try to piece together the relationships and the failures. For now, I work to hold this little nuclear family together, to forge bonds that will survive our demise, to give them some roots or at least knowledge of them. It’s a challenge.

    • Wow, it does sound similar! When I got to college and beyond I made really great friends and I learned a long time ago to think of the people I really love, who also love me as my true family. My dad’s oldest brother married a woman who had a big sense of family. When I was a little older there were lots of gatherings with my aunt and uncle and their child and grandchildren and her sister’s family — eventually there were sometimes 4 generations. My uncle was a hoot (and my cousin Kent –his son–wasn’t bad either) so it was a laugh riot. I’ve kind of wished that I could have that big family feeling… I’ve been really glad to have found my cousins in Knoxville. Maybe that sense of ties to the past and previous generations is something that’s falling away — I wonder sometimes whether all those roots are a good thing or something from which to detach…

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