Friday, January 11, 2008


Americans seem to have a number of internalized but conflicting commands: be a big shot but stay humble; own land and stay on it but be a wanderer with no ties; be brilliant but don’t outshine others. Among them seems to be equal and opposite commands to stay in touch with family, even if you have to reconstitute them with genetic information, but remain an individual with no ties or obligations. I feel this pair. When I was young, I wanted to be just myself, uncompromised. My phrase was "a free and independent individual." I renewed that a couple of times through my life, but now that I’m planted firmly in one place and have the Internet to roam virtually, I’ve been reweaving the net of family.

Originally, as was traditional, I looked for the descendants of Archibald Strachan, an emigrant from Kilmarnock, Scotland, to the South Dakota prairies in the homestead era. But slowly I began to get email messages not from HIS family but from his WIFE’S family! Soon I was seeing the project as deciphering the lives of the Welch sisters, at least the ones who married and emigrated. I found that our lives had criss-crossed back and forth without us knowing it. One cousin had lived only a couple of blocks from us in Portland, OR, without either of us making the connection.

There was one person I didn’t pursue: my brother’s daughter. He didn’t marry her mother -- never married anyone -- and then suffered a head injury that made him unreasonable, unemployable, dependent on my mother. I thought it was prudent and respectful not to intrude, but left clues big enough to be found. Now that daughter has found me. I’m so delighted that I couldn’t sleep last night! Neither my other brother nor I have had biological children and I’m about to the stage in life when I’ll need to pass some things on. Another one of those contradictions.

Adrienne is 27, looks like Scarlett Johannson, is finishing up her Master’s in large animal fertility studies at Oregon State University, and waiting to hear from Veterinary College. She’s been happily married for over a year to a Forestry major, named Paul like her father. She’s had a good family and a little brother. She has two horses, a big multi-breed dog, and an orange cat named Sampson. I hereby declare that with her permission I’m ready to adopt the lot! I’m SO delighted! If I’d sat down and designed a niece, I could not have done so well!

My cousin Jeannie and I sort through the strands of heredity all the time and talk about how heritable culture is and what impact it has had on us. When we make a new discovery or develop a new theory, we feel rewarded. Not everyone is impressed with such stuff, though it seems to be a preoccupation across the country. The most recent U of Chicago alumni mag includes two dynamite articles about inheritance, identity and physiology. To me this is enormously explanatory and reassuring. To others it implies we’re machines and possibly out of control. See for yourself:

Alongside this push/pull about whether the “genes made me do it” or “I did it myself by choice” is the dilemma of how much we owe our relatives. If my sibling is in trouble, how much help do I owe? Or looked at the other way around, if I need some emergency help, who am I entitled to ask? My cousin Scott, knowing I’m in a tight patch, sends me a phone card every Christmas, which is why I could talk to my newfound niece for an hour last night. But I don’t think he wants me sleeping on his sofa. His sister Jeannie willingly makes room for her son and his family and pets, and would find a place for me to visit but it would be stretching it to go with a big fat cat under each arm expecting to move in for good. Different families have different limits and expectations about all this. In the past Indians put almost NO limits on what one family member, no matter how distant, could expect from others, but assimilation has changed that.

I’m feeling an obligation now to risk and disclose a little less, for the sake of not exposing my niece to side-stream embarrassment or criticism. So long as I thought there was only me to be responsible for my ideas and actions, I could get out on the edge a little more. But now I’ll have to test the effect on her. I have hunch she’s pretty sturdy and won’t be horrified by, for instance, her auntie having been a dog catcher -- or a UU minister! Some people would, you know.

In fact, I think that one characteristic she might share with me is a sort of feeling of solidarity with the great extended family of Mammals. (This is the sort of thing that makes Mark snort.) See the articles above about hiccuping cats and tribal DNA. I have such a strong mental picture of all life unfolding out of the previous lives -- it quite overwhelms the Biblical story of God sitting by the mud modeling little creatures, finally getting around to people. So, maybe for lack of children or close descendants until now, I’ve summoned up a sort of ultimate family that included not just everybody but also every creature.

Now I can focus on the obligations of an auntie. Maybe not Auntie Mame, but I had such great aunties myself! Aunt May, my father’s sister, was a graceful lady and an accomplished painter. Aunt Elsie, my uncle’s wife, was a poet published by the Saturday Evening Post and Arizona Highways among other magazines. Aunt Jo, my other uncle’s wife, was a woman of competence and grace. On my mother’s side was Aunt Bec, who was an army nurse in Oxford and Rheims, and my beloved Aunt Allie, the kindest and most animal loving of us all. My mother’s cousin, Nadine, also counted as a well-loved auntie. Aunties tell you about life and if you get it really wrong, they set you straight, but they never reject you. To tell the truth, I think I’m going to be a good auntie. For sure, I’m going to LOVE this girl -- already do.


Chas S. Clifton said...

Congratulations on connecting with your niece. She sounds great.

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Chas! You're a sweetie. And be sure to check out those two URL's -- both dynamite. "Why do cats get hiccups?"

Prairie Mary