Friday, August 31, 2012

Family Trees

Trees are noble, majestic creations. They remain steadfastly implanted into the ground, secured by long roots and held in place by their own strength. It seems only natural that an image as robust and sturdy as trees should have become the symbol for family structures, with branches of lineage depicted as off-shoots of the main trunk.

We take comfort in imagining our family trees as durable and unwavering, standing through snowfalls and strong winds, continuing to grow stronger each year.

Unfortunately, family trees are far from indestructible. They are fragile and subject to unforeseen damage. Some don't survive the first breeze.

Recently I heard from a friend regarding a rather distant member of her family, who happens to have a lifestyle deemed unacceptable by rest of the family. This individual lives within a few miles of the family center but has been ostracized by the family until only recently when his mother passed away. Now finally the rest of the family is attempting to mend the fences and reconnect with him.

My friend's comment to me was, "How sad." Unfortunately, I know of several similar situations.

Families are supposed to be warm, nurturing and supportive structures. That is not always the case. Families can be petty, nagging and immovable when the situation calls for it. Family members can be uncompromising over some slight -- real or imagined -- and can let that injury fester indefinitely, often after the injury itself has been forgotten.

Perhaps it is due to pride that such conflicts linger. Whatever the reason, division in the family are injurious to all. Some relationships never mend.

In the 1950s, my mother and her brother had a disagreement over the care of their mother who was then in failing health. My mother had been the primary caregiver and my uncle happened to drop by from his home several hours away. A disagreement ensued and they didn't speak or communicate for decades. One day many years later, my uncle telephoned from a hospital room where he lay terminally ill. He reached out to his sister so that he could tidy up loose ends. It was a very difficult situation for everyone.

Another branch of the tree involved a woman who had passed away before I was born. She had married into the family, had a tumultuous marriage and died estranged from our family and her own. In recent years, I have attempted to learn more about this woman and her family, only to find that all photos of her were discarded and all traces erased. It is almost as though she never existed. It is hard to image how alone and ignored she must have felt.

When I was a kid, seeing my cousins was a big deal. We were close in age, liked each other and enjoyed playing together. But they lived in another city and seeing them was limited to some holidays and occasional visits. Their parents divorced suddenly and abruptly after the husband came home from work one day to find the house empty and all occupants gone. Many futile attempts were made to find out what had happened and where they were living. We essentially lost our cousins without explanation.

People may have their reasons for trying to remove certain branches from the tree trunk. Not all people are easy to live with and not all marriages permanent and happy. Ultimately, numerous branches are trimmed to help preserve the tree's survival. Many family trees have cut off so many branches that they are in danger of collapse.

Family trees need to be protected in order to survive. They need nutrients to grow and produce more branches. Unless new branches are allowed to form, family trees may be cut down and discarded.


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