A few weeks ago a young co-worker took a day off while his wife delivered their first child. Hearing this was going to happen I congratulated him and told him, “The world changes for you on that day.” He said, “What do you mean?” and I just told him, “Wait, you’ll see.”
When he returned with news that all was well, passing around pictures of a robust and healthy little boy, I enquired after his wife and asked how he was feeling. He smiled and said, “You were right – the world is a new place.”
I felt that way with every child my wife delivered. It was always exciting and nearly breathtaking in how abrupt it was – one era ended in an instant and a new one began.
To fully understand what that feels like you just have to experience it. It is one of things that maybe you can wonder about and perhaps others will tell you. But until your moccasins walk down that path you really have no idea.
I realized over this past weekend that my children are in a state where they really have no idea when it comes to their family heritage.
That’s not an accusation, that’s not something I levy to garner guilt or shame. It’s just the way it is.
We took another long weekend trek to Dad’s famed storage unit where 55 years of accumulation still exists and that we’re slowly working. Dad just can’t afford to house all this stuff (it’s not all his either) and decisions have to be made to deal with it all.
For days Dad worked with various family members to sort things into piles. There was a pile of Christmas stuff to be sold at a yard sale, a pile of things belonging to each child, a pile of things to be donated and a pile of stuff to be preserved.
The work generated a few fun moments. We learned quickly that what a box was labeled didn’t mean that’s what was inside – or that it was what we thought it was.
My daughter Madelyn came across a curious carton labeled “Redneck Pillow”. She laughed and wondered aloud who would own such a thing. Almost instantly, I surmised the box belonged to my little sister Kris, as she was the closest thing we had to a redneck in the family.
This made everyone laugh.
Madelyn tore open the box saying, “Well I’ve got to see what a redneck pillow looks like.” As soon as the flaps were opened she burst out laughing and pulled it out of the box, holding it high in the air.
“It’s not a redneck pillow, it’s a red NECK pillow!”.
After everyone had their laugh at that one of my kids asked, “Dad, why is Aunt Kris the redneck of the family?”
It was a fair question and I found some pictures of Kris during a phase when she was big into country music, wore hats and boots and all. They took some pleasure in seeing their much younger aunt in a new light but I was quite surprised they didn’t know this about her.
My kids are pretty fond of Kris so this was somewhat of a magical moment of discovery. The “cool aunt” just became a bit more cool, even though there isn’t a one of my children who are fans of country music. They have just always loved Kris’ take-no-prisoners love of life in pursuing the things she likes.
But in a way the moment encapsulated what is so awesome about family history.
We just don’t know what we don’t know.
All through out the weekend of working on this storage unit we found bits and pieces of family past. There were things in there that none of us knew were there.
For example, my Dad found an old metal file box which contained another box. The inner container housed mementos my Grandfather had saved of his parents. It contained their wills and a few personal items which now have to be well over a century old. Neither of us knew how they ended up in the pile of stuff.
But more importantly, my Dad was the only one who had a memory of these two people. I know of them from my family history research and many conversations with those who grew up with them. But my children have no connection to these great grandparents. The file box and what was in it did nothing to hold their interest.
In such “things” it is hard for anyone to find much connection.
In contrast, my children and those of my siblings that were there were anxious to find things connected to my mother. They knew my Mom and having lost her just two years ago they are missing her more than I think they anticipated.
We found several large cartons of crochet afghans my mother made. With each discovery voices were heard saying, “I want one!” or something similar. They knew there are few precious things left that came from my mother’s hands. There is no way I’m going to allow those things to be donated or tossed – we’ll clean them up and give them out again as gifts – from my mother.
Seeing this disparity in their appreciation for family past was a little distressing for me. But after giving myself some time to think I’ve come to realize that time is all they need to grow in their appreciation for all their family.
The eyes of youth are clouded by hopeful futures that they see on an endless horizon. Only time and wisdom and experience can give them the connective longing for their family past. My children are no different than I was at their age.
What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and listen a little better to my parents and grandparents. What I wouldn’t give to gather more of their precious memories and to document better the things they were telling me.
But I wasn’t seeing the world then through their eyes. I was seeing the world through my eyes where my future seemingly had so little to do with their past.
I know differently now.
Last week my sister-in-law shared the picture you see below. On the left is Beatrice Frances Baker, my wife’s great grandmother. She was affectionately known as Grandma Trix.
Hopefully you can see it. Hopefully the rest of my children can see it.
Grandma Trix is a beloved character among the Gillens and Malones, my wife’s family. I have heard nothing but magic and love about Grandma Trix.
But I do not yet know her history.
But seeing her in my daughter’s eyes draws me to her instantly. She is, in the end, family.
Beloved. Precious. Part of us.
In a way, this picture solves a little mystery I have had within me since the day my daughter Allie was born.
I’ve told the story many times but I’ve never really done much to explain my feelings on that incredible day. That birthing experience was something of a nightmare for my dear wife but for me it was a day filled with amazing discovery, love and revelation.
Allie was born with her eyes wide open – and she hardly made a noise.
In fact, though a little stranger to me in those first few moments of her life I saw then for the first time “the look” she gets that is uniquely hers whenever she experiences something new. Her mind was active and the wheels were spinning — and the expression on her face was one of wonder and discovery.
And then there were those big, beautiful brown eyes.
They say you can’t tell a baby’s eye color at the moment of birth. And generally I would agree because most of my children were born with grey colored eyes that eventually changed to blue or green.
Allie’s eyes were dark and they were huge.
I knew almost right away her eyes would be brown like her mother’s. It was a thrill to me, simple as this sounds, to have a brown eyed child.
But what struck me, especially in those first several hours of her life, was how those eyes spoke and expressed her feelings. Allie has the type of eyes that just communicate.
I can recall looking at my beautiful new daughter and wondering about those eyes. What came next was a sacred moment of revelation unlike any other I would have concerning my children. In an instant my entire head was filled with light and I was given knowledge about this little spirit.
I knew her and her capabilities at that very moment.
This is nearly 21 years ago now and looking back – through the perfect vision we all possess in looking back – I can see now that what I was given about Allie was perfectly accurate.
She was and remains unique among my children – not greater loved, not better, not more special than any of them. But unique – as different as those brown eyes that separate her from her siblings.
In nearly every way she is unique and different. Some joke that shouldn’t be a surprise because she is a middle child. I won’t go there because I’m a middle child myself and, well, you wouldn’t understand.
But I believe our family past has a big part in explaining what makes each of us unique.
To my daughter – who was named after my beloved Aunt Allie and after my wife – I would challenge you to get to know the Grandma Trix you see in this picture. There is a reason you have her look – and there is likely a good chance the look came from someone else in the distant past.
For example, this side-by-side picture of my daughter Maggie with a picture of my Grandmother. You’d have to be completely blind not to see the relation.
But I know both Maggie and my Grandma.
I am quite certain that if they had the chance to spend some time together they would delight in each other. I think they would find common ground beyond the things I know about them both. Both are precious to me and I feel they would be precious to each other.
Or how about these images of my Dad and my son.
Just as I would challenge Allie to get to know Grandma Trix and for Maggie to get to know my Grandma Westover I would invite my son to get to know my Dad more and to do it now. Your opportunity at embracing the past is only going to happen by the wiser part of the vision of your youth, son. You may not see the wisdom of it now. So trust me on this. You won’t regret getting close to your granddad while he’s still alive.
To me, that’s what I was feeling in the dusty confines of that storage unit – where the “family history pile”, as we came to call it – was the biggest of them all. There were photos and documents and keepsakes and stuff from all sides of my family.
For me, older now and wiser, I could “feel” their presence as I looked over these earthly things.
Some of it made me sad. I was, frankly, greatly missing my mother this weekend because hers was the biggest presence there, of course.
But I shared an interesting moment with my Dad.
I opened an old enveloped and inside was a stack of family group sheets. He saw them from a distance in my hands and said, “Those must be from my Grandma Westover.”
And I said, “No, Dad. These are from MY Grandma Westover – I think your mother gave you these.”
“How can you tell?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “from the scans that Sam gave us of his Mother’s family group sheets they were all filled out by hand. These are typed. Grandma gave me a set just like this.”
Dad came over and thumbed through the sheets. “I think you’re right,” he said. Then from within the pages of these family group sheets out dropped a letter – in Grandma’s unmistakable hand writing.
In the letter, which was addressed to my father, Grandma talked about what a different year and what a different Christmas it had been for everyone and she thanked my dad for his many kindnesses to her during the course of that year.
“I think this was her last Christmas,” Dad said as he read the letter.
As he read the words that Grandma wrote about the family group sheets – “I want you to have these”, she said – I could feel so much of what my father was feeling just then.
He was missing his mom, too.
But as he carefully folded the letter back up and put it back into the envelope I thought what a wise woman my Grandma was.
Dad knew the names on those group sheets without looking at them. They were precious to him long before his mother ever gave him that for her last Christmas. They were precious to her, too.
But the real love was expressed, mother to son, in the words “I want you to have these”.
Not all of our family past can leave us something so personal.
Perhaps this why the Lord, in his wisdom, allows us to look like them, to carry on their names, and to be similar in habit and manner.
If I could tell my children anything right now it would be for them to look to their family past.
You can find answers there. You can find inspiration there.
I tell you they know you in your youth better than you know yourself. And as you explore who you are and come to terms with where you are headed and why you are here you would be wise to realize they are right here with you.
They know you and they love you.
You would be wise to know and love them too.