At church we’re using Carol Howard Merritt’s book, Reframing Hope, for a Lenten study, and I’m loving the study guide she put together. It had us start with drawing a family history, which got some great and varied responses. I am decidedly non-artistic, so usually an assignment such as that one makes me nervous enough to want to leave the room, throw up or figure out how to replace it. But I’ve learned that at least giving it a try usually brings me to some new way of looking at things, even if the product doesn’t meet my ridiculously perfectionist standards for myself. (Not possible, which is silly, I admit.)
Bravely, I drew a stream emanating from two small stones, leading to a lake with an island in the middle, which then empties over a waterfall into a stream that includes tributaries leaving the main stream, and one that crosses it. The initial stream is the heritage of my birth parents. The lake portrays my life growing up, all centered on my father, the island in the middle. Then I went over the waterfall into adulthood, married, had children. I indicated each of the people with a different color in the stream. Eventually, the stream for my first husband veers off a bit, but still runs approximately parallel. After all, he is very much in our lives. Further on, a stream crosses ours (my second husband), and shortly after there are two little streams going off on their own, though they are closely parallel (my sons, who remain close and are living parallel creative lives). The crossing stream moves on in its own direction and ends, at least where we are concerned. The main stream continues on, in the colors representing my daughter and me, still broad, running to the edge of the page as do my sons’ streams and my first husband’s. It’s a story that hasn’t ended, with adventures to be discovered as we turn to another page.
I won’t tell other people’s stories, of course, but I will say I loved the different approaches people took and the thoughts elicited by the exercise.
From there we went on to talk about secrets and how we discover them in our families. Sometimes we deduce the truth, or discover it by accident. I thought my mother was born in 1927 (a year younger than her sister-in-law) until a relative of my dad’s sent us a family history with a family tree that included birth dates. Suddenly she was two years older!!! When I asked why she let me think she was younger, my mother told me she felt old to be my mother. By today’s standards, she wasn’t old at all, just 35 then they adopted me, but as someone who watched her friends having babies all through the 1950s, she felt like an older mom.
I had the strange experience of feeling both young with my first and way old with my second, and I’m now going to contradict my earlier assessment of my mom’s age by telling you I had the first at 24, almost 25, and the third at 34. But it just happened that #1 Son had a lot of friends who were the first children of Baby Boomers who waited until their 30s or even 40s to have a kid, and that LP has a lot of first child friends whose parents started earlier.
My parents were both pretty good about answering questions, if asked, but neither of them volunteered information. One of the ways I know a story about my family history is true is if my mother and my father told it the same way, independently. It’s important to understand, they were not prone to colluding with one another on the telling of stories. They didn’t talk about anything enough for that.
My mom did tell one story about life before children that I doubted. After driving my dad from Portsmouth, VA, to Charlottesville for a football game, then back to Norfolk, VA, for some big dance, she described herself as exhausted. They went to the home of friends to change into their fancy clothes. My mother’s friend, the mother of numerous young children, said, “Don’t worry, Virginia. Just take one of these! You’ll feel wonderful!” She then gave my mother uppers.
I took this one to my dad, giving as few details as possible. He gave a chagrined chuckle. “I had to peel your mother off the ceiling that night.”