Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Gnarly Family Tree

 A couple of weeks ago, I found myself on a surreal journey to the other side of Canada.  In a sense, I felt like I was re-winding my own life as I left behind my husband and kids, to travel with my parents and brother. (How weird is that?)  We attended a family reunion with relatives I've rarely seen in my lifetime, and met up with other relatives who, as a result of a dysfunctional family, had minimal connection with my dad (some of the last contact being 25 years ago).

In a world that is so "connected", it's no surprise that we seem to have developed a lure and fascination with our ancestry as of late.  People scour the internet for their long-lost relatives, looking to fill in the missing gaps on their family trees.  We long to know our roots - where did we come from, who do we look like, what is our family history???  We want to know what sort of people we belong to, and whom we have grown from.

During my trip, I met all sorts of family members.  My mom's side of the family is pretty normal - it's just that growing up, I didn't see them very often as we have been scattered across a vast country, thousands of miles separating us.  My last family trip to Ontario had been in 1984, as we attended a funeral.  On the flip side, visits to our part of the country from my mom's relatives were scattered and few due to busy lives and the expense of cross-country travel.  Yet, despite the distance and lack of real "relationship", I found an instant connection and bond with my aunts and uncles and cousins.  I found myself mentally acknowledging family resemblances - and with amusement, noted: "Now I know where I got my small hips from!"  We laughed and shared memories and caught up on life and children, and talked of how we should make an effort to connect more in the future.

Then I began to meet my dad's family.  All my life, I had the understanding that my dad was the youngest in a large family (at least 10 kids) and that his mom had walked out when he was a baby, leaving all the kids to be divided up into foster care.  It isn't something we discussed very much as a family, considering that my dad prefers to leave the past, in the past.  So now, I had a natural curiosity about these random people - my aunts and uncles - whom I would be meeting.  I'd like to say that we instantly felt a deep affinity for one another and the conversation flowed easily and steadily.  However, there was a sort of awkward caution - a knowing that the family's history had left a strong, indelible stain on so many lives, and would not be forgotten.  Even so, as we gathered in my aunt's log home in the Ontario woods, I sensed the same longing and hunger for family and belonging that is evident in all families - whether weird, normal, healthy or unhealthy.

All my life, I've wondered about this "other branch" of my family tree.  I wondered if my aunts were pretty, and if I'd inherited some of my features from them.  Were they overweight or skinny, tall or short, with curly hair or straight, big noses or small???  Who did I get all of my crazy freckles and moles from?  Not only that, but I wondered what sort of people they had become.  With wounds as deep as their haunting past had created, did they grow up to have normal families or were they still victims and "walking wounded"?  My oldest uncle had apparently snubbed any attempts at meeting with us.  Perhaps the thought of his younger siblings was too strong a reminder of pain buried deep in the past.

I found a few answers, and still many questions.  As the humid afternoon of picture-taking and halting conversation drew on, a tiny thread of connection began to weave throughout our lives.  Address books and slips of paper were passed around as names and contact information were jotted down.  "I've never been much of a Christmas card person," I told my aunts and uncle, "but I'd like to make an effort to stay in touch with all of you."  Realistically, I never had much reason before to send cards to relatives far away...  Now there was a smidgen of hope for a semblance of relationship with my distant relatives.  What was most odd, however, was the constant scramble to remember names - was this Aunt Josephine or Aunt Geraldine? (all the similar old-fashioned names didn't help, either!)

At one point during the weekend, I stole away from the suffocation of chatter and awkward conversation with people I barely know, to go for a long run.  I found myself hidden away, running through wooded trails, passing through sunlight and shadows.  As a prairie girl, I'm accustomed to endless expanses of nearly flat grassland with few trees, apart from the ones growing down in the river bottom.  I found myself inexplicitly drawn to the quiet and calm of the rugged, hilly, densely wooded terrain.  Deeper and deeper I was lured into the hush of wooded trails; twisting and turning past ponds and fallen logs and through the occasional bright patch of a clearing in the woods; a hidden meadow, nestled among the forest.

I kept track of my direction and progress with the GPS on my phone, knowing that at any point in time, I could simply backtrack and find my way back to my aunt and uncle's home where we were staying.  After an hour and a half of solid, hard-core, yet surprisingly refreshing running, I was heartened by the fact that all my twists and turns on unfamiliar, unmarked trails had led me in a loop, and I was, seemingly heading back in the right direction.  

I was within a couple miles of my destination when I made a wrong turn.  Although I found myself out of the woods, and on a main road, the map on my phone showed me unexpectedly off-course, having headed a mile or so in the wrong direction.  I found myself frustrated and keenly aware of my inexperience with GPS mapping, and my predisposition to having logic become severely clouded by frustration and panic.  At first, I thought I would simply retrace my steps and head back to a point which I recognized, and could then proceed in the "right" direction.  Easier said than done.  What followed, was a miserable few miles... (Yes! I continued to run in circles and covered a few more MILES) before I resigned myself to being too tired, and too lost to figure out my misdirection.  Thank God for cell phones - and a big brother who was all too amused to come and rescue his poor, lost sister.

I have to say, that what started out as a lovely, solitary run, left me longing for companionship near the end.  When you find yourself lost and exhausted, in unfamiliar territory, the last thing you desire is to be alone.  I knew that if my husband was with me, he'd have no trouble navigating the map.  While I certainly enjoy being alone, I couldn't deny the fact that every journey, struggle,  frustration and trial is definitively lessened by companionship. 

Family tends to be the people whom you belong to, who are supposed to stand by you and love you "no matter what".  Sometimes, your family just happens to be people whom you are related to, sharing the same last name and physical features.  Sometimes you can feel entirely alone, although surrounded by relations.  At the root of our frail existence, I believe that (despite how vehemently some of us choose to appear strong and independent), we all long for connection and we all long to belong.
As my trip wrapped up, and the lack of sleep began to override my sensibility, I yearned for my own precious family and for the sanctuary which my home represents.   I recently came across a quote that well expresses my feelings regarding travel and discontent with one's life:
"A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it." -George Moore
In the same manner, I believe humanity searches and commits to all manner of relationships, in hopes of finding deeper meaning and contentment.  I don't know about you, but no matter how awesome my relationships are, when I become honest with myself, and I face the ugliness of my pride and selfishness, there remains a struggle with emptiness and feeling alone.  Many of us are inclined to dig up our family roots, hoping to find something... meaning or significance to hold onto.

I search and I seek and run as far and fast as my legs can carry me...

I've run full circle.  I'm inclined to make a call for help because I'm too tired, too worked up and too emotional to figure things out and find my way "home".  My ancestry is muddled with best-forgotten details and people whom I'll never know.  I'll never find all that I'm looking for in the back woods of Ontario, and I may not even find everything I need here in my comfortable, happy home. 

All that I truly need and desire is a just prayer away.  What I hunger for is freely given through Christ.  I can belong; eternally adopted into God's family.  This is an obvious truth for most believers, still... I need to be reminded of this fact.  I need to remember where my real home is, and how I've been grafted into a new family tree. 

I belong.

God looks after us all, makes us robust with life (Ps 41:2)

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