Sunday, September 26, 2010

Trees from still life 365

 As most of you know, I am the editor of still life 365. We have a new feature today called Ten Questions. Ten Questions around the monthly theme, and a blog roundup over there. I really envisioned the Ten Questions being ten questions to work with for writing, or just answering like a meme. So, I really wanted to use these questions as jumping off points for a bit of exploration.

8. Trees have also been used to represent families. Talk a bit about your own family tree.
9. What are your feelings now about family trees and exploring your own lineage?

My own family tree twists and turns around cultures and places. My mother emigrated to the United States in 1968 from Central America and my father was born in the coal mining region of Pennsylvania.  One of his great uncles was the last of the Molly Maguires hung in Pennsylvania. My father's families are both Irish and German. My mother's family, both sides, emigrated to Panama. Her father was originally from San Salvador, and his brothers both moved to Mexico to become film makers. My grandmother's family emigrated to Panama from Spain and Italy. Her father was the son of olive farmers outside of Turino, and when he fell in love with my great-grandmother, who was living in Panama already with her own family but training in Spain to be a teacher, sent Luka's sister to live with them in Panama. Celestina was her name, and she never married. Her duty was to live with my great-grandfather. She lived to be 103 and always spoke with a heavy Italian accent, but she kept the stories of the family and often told them to my mother when she would come to visit her, so then my mother told them to me, and I have written some of them down. I always saw myself that way, which is strange. But even as a child, I tried to commit the stories to memory, retell them to myself, and weave yarns about what I saw. I never could see myself with a family before I met Sam, but I could always see myself as an old woman, telling stories about my family, stories without me involved, but what I witnessed. Family folk legends and myths. I don't know if it is a long process of whisper down the alley, or if one hundred years ago, there was more magic.

It's funny to think about family tales when I think about family trees, but I do. I feel like I can visualize this huge, lopsided tree, and the tales of each branch. My family tree on my mother's side is so heavy--my mother has eleven siblings, 49 nieces and nephews, 57 grand nieces and nephews. And my father has one half sister who died in her early 40s. She never had children. It was not too long ago that I found out that my father's family isn't quite what we thought it was. Respecting his privacy, I won't go further, but I will someday tell that strange, sad, crazy story. I only wished I known there was a missing link there when I was being tested and treated for pre-cancer services. 

I find genealogy fascinating and genetics even more fascinating. There are times I look at my children and wonder whose nose that is, perhaps my great Spanish grandmother's nose, after trying to fit my own and my husband's features over them. But my relationship with family trees, most recently, has been to figure out our medical history to see the genetic markers for Lucy's death. So, instead of stories, I see strokes and cancers. Heart conditions and high cholesterol. When we met with the genetic counselor at the beginning of Thor's pregnancy, we had to fill in our family tree. Well, not ours. Lucy's family tree. It gave me a kind of calm to imagine all these people coming together for one little baby girl. And so I kept thinking, this is Lucy's tree. A tree of personalities and diseases and ages and life spans all long enough to have babies of their own.


  1. Oh you make me all curious and now I want to hear more of your stories. I think you already are the women you thought you would be, though you have along way to go before you will call yourself an old woman, telling stories (and doing so so very well!), blogging, writing and I can't imagine you not telling stories out loud to Thor and Beez.

    I did the story telling with the genetic consultant, too. It is rather analytical and yet fascinating to see it written down like that with lines and arrows and crosses and circles and numbers.

  2. I can definitely imagine you as the storyteller. I am sitting on my couch transported to the world of Isabel Allende and the Stories of Eva Luna, or Garcia Marquez and Macondo, but in your voice. I love your stories.

    I hadn't thought about this quite, before you asked the question in this way, but our (several) family tree drawings with our (several) genetic counselors mostly make me see danger- autism here, reproductive cancer there. Drawing our family tree has made us pessimistic about our chances and unsure of the wisdom of trying to pass our genes on at all. When I think about my family, I feel surrounded by love and (sometimes too much) presence. When I think about my family tree, I feel fear and trepidation.

    And one more thing- I have, on my own, reexamined the life of every woman on both sides of our family looking for infertility, for recurrent pregnancy loss, for any sign that it isn't just me. That there was someone, at some point, whose own history was like mine. Who struggled the way we struggle. Whose genes, whose inheritance, somehow makes this not totally my fault.

    It's just me.

  3. Very interesting to read about your family from all-over-the-place. I can't trace it back too long/precise, cause the war made many people speechless (and ashamed to talk maybe). Just recently I found out my grandma walked 1700 km (with a newborn on her back), to find her injured husband.

    I have found several dead babies in my family's history (though nobody offering a reason). The side of Sky's father contains at least thrice as many nationalities than mine. One day I'd live to draw his family-tree... with all the stories I know so far...

    Thanks for this post... I love your storytelling.

  4. That's really interesting. I know very little about my family history. We don't have many relatives. (To match your 49 cousins on one side, I have three total cousins- one of which I haven't seen in more than twenty years.)

  5. I had to look up what you meant by "the last of the hung Molly Maguires" because that sounded very interesting. And it was. You have a very rich blend in your ancestry. I love your stories too.

  6. Of all of my purported things I have to say about trees, I have to admit that I've never really glommed onto the concept of the family tree. Like most turn-of-the-last-century immigrants, we've been busy at maximizing our American-ness and neglecting our history. Plus, I always had this notion that a family is more like a forest than just one tree.

    But reading this post I feel like I get the point of the tree imagery in relation to genealogy. I suppose we are all parts of some sort of cohesive whole and there's a story behind every scar and twisted or missing limb.

  7. Being one of the family genealogists, I love this post. The fact that this branch of the tree stops with me is one of my greatest regrets about stillbirth, infertility & childlessness. I just hope that some of my cousins' kids take an interest in the family history, so that I will have someone to pass along all my photos & charts & research to (failing that, it will get donated to the provincial/state archives).

    I have 30+ cousins on my Ukrainian-Canadian father's side. On my Irish-Swedish-American mother's side, I have two. In the extended family, there are quite a number of childless people (many of them never married or married later in life), so I don't feel like quite so much of an oddball.


What do you think?