Family Matters

One of my favorite pieces of art is a rendering of a tree, a complex rendering whose trunk, branches and leaves are represented by the names of members of the Nicewanger family. I’ve never seen a more clever way of representing a family tree. When I attended my first bride’s family’s reunion, their family tree was linear, laid out on sheets of paper that stretched across a line of folding tables. I will soon have a chance to participate in the building of another family tree when I visit with my mother’s side of my family for a reunion.
Once, families grew in place, widening out from the place where the earliest members first settled. People stayed where they were born, marrying and having children who stayed where the parents were born. That is seldom the case anymore, as children and families say goodbye and head off to other, sometimes distant, places. My first bride and I left our Pittsburgh hometown and families soon after we married, heading West into adventure and parenthood (an adventure in its own right). We decided to get closer to our families after our daughter was born, so that she could have the benefit of a closer relationship with her grandparents, a decision which brought us from California to Indiana. My second iteration of marriage was in Indiana, to a woman who was born here and lives here, still. We added two more children to our family tree, and my son is going with me to Alexandra, Virginia, to add his name and face to the Smith family tree.
My eldest daughter asked me, some months ago, if I was going to the Smith family reunion. I told her that I knew nothing of it. She forwarded an email to me that had three versions of my name: Joni, Jon, and Clement, III. Lisa’s email was correct, though her name was slightly inaccurate. I corrected the record and signed on to join the rest of the group in Virginia, since my knowledge of my mother’s side of the family is limited.
Years ago, the general curiosity about our forebears brought about the launch of a Web site that promoted and helped in the search for our ancestors. At one time, the search was free, and my second bride was able to find my father’s father, my grandmother and all of my aunts and uncles on the Woods side. (I remember a factoid that I found that said that in the 1920s, the most common name in the country was “Woods.”) My cousin — my father’s sister’s daughter — did an oral history of the Woods family, and her recorded interview with my grandfather added some information and corrected some myths. But on my mother’s side of the tree, the branches are spindly and hung with few leaves.
Once families began moving away from the central record base — primarily, the big Bible that held the record of names, births and deaths — the tracking of family lines became more difficult. The Internet, along with social media, now provides us with a useful tool, a way to connect with our far-flung family members and maintain our family’s tree. But I’m looking forward to the human connections, the live-body interactions, the stories of those who came before us, and how we came to be. I want to hear again, the story of my great-grandmother’s arrival in this country from Madagascar, and to add my son and his sisters to the texture of the tapestry of our connections, and write my two grandchildren onto the lines that delineate our family matters.