We tend to conceptualize family in terms of direct lineage: grandparent to parent to child. Heritage can feel like a growing chain added link-by-link through the generations, or like stepping stones that bridge the footfall of one generation to the next. The generations adjacent to our own tend to feel amplified, with others trailing like a bellcurve into the distant past and future. This is a paradigm of family, likely more common in societies in which a single household typically contains only one or two generations like in the United States.
I don’t hide my mother’s mental illness. Instead, I try to mention it in a matter-of-fact manner when the topic arises naturally. It’s my small way of doing what I can to reduce the stigma of mental illness in my culture, the same stigma that in some cases may prevent those afflicted from seeking professional help. Not surprisingly, mental illness can create a wobbly stepping stone along the family path, a weakened link in the family chain.
All of this to say that I’m in the process of claiming old family items in my role as the new matriarch of my family. It’s a reason I have not been as active here or on twitter lately. I am organizing, assimilating and discarding. It’s not an easy task when you come from a family where every moment seemed worthy of documentation. This is really the first time I’ve attempted to rein in family items with this level of resolve and thoroughness, and the result has been enlightening (and exhausting).
Something unexpected has happened along the way. I feel like I am connecting to those in my family who have passed. To family who was not mentally ill. To those who – if I had known them better or had known them at all – would probably have been more similar to me. Some things just skipped a generation.
In a sense, this realization is a corollary to my “Family is by Choice” mantra. As described HERE, I believe we are not required to be “family” with every relative, and likewise should be open to including non-relatives in our definition of “family”. There are people who do not share my DNA who would support me (and I them) through a crisis. I’m sure you can say the same.
It follows that a family by choice would include those who have passed but survive through their documented lives. As a friend said to me (and who is probably reading this….*waves*), autobiographies have the prerogative to present one’s life in an edited way. We might not include the least flattering details when retelling the story of our life.
But what about the story of a family? The details that we include when we relate family history to our children is something we will need to consider as they grow older. We might decide not to put the full weight of family history on a wobbly stepping stone as we walk through the story of previous generations. Many families have a wobbly stone or two, after all.
It has been reassuring through this process to discover that some stepping stones will provide solid footing as long as I skip the stone adjacent to mine. If I reach back to my grandmother’s link, and to my grandmother’s mother’s link, I find a solid, strong chain upon which to hang the family history. It is a fine history if my children ever decide to journey into their family past. It’s a new way of skipping stones.