I went to my great-aunt’s memorial service yesterday. Eleanor, know as Aunt E to all of us, died in July. She was the younger sister of my grandfather, Pops (Great-Pops to my kids). I sat in a pew with my mother, my cousin (13 years younger), and behind my father, his twin, and Pops. Across the aisle were other, more distant cousins, all familiar to me by sight if not by name. Listening to soaring hymns and the buzzing of large fans (no a/c … steamy) I found myself lost in thought about my family.
Pops, in his eulogy, recounted some tales of growing up with E. There were stories of a steam ship crossing of the Pacific and of World War 2 missiles flying overhead at a country home outside Beijing. My grandfather and his four siblings grew up in China as the children of missionaries. I am the descendant of real adventurers, something that I sometimes forget.
I thought about my father’s family, for whom Whit is named. This family of engineers, of intense, intelligent people with (sometimes impossibly) high, demanding standards. Thought about their distaste for show and their strong privileging of content over surface. Their absolute belief in the life of the mind, their lack of interest in superficiality. Remembered piles of books (growing up, Dad had a “no textbooks at the dinner table” rule) and beloved boats (after he and my grandmother raised four boys, sailors one and all, Pops built a wooden sailboat by hand and delighted in sailing her in Long Island Sound).
I sat next to my cousin, who I don’t see often but who I always greet with genuine excitement and an immediate sense of closeness. I felt my family running through my veins, felt proud of my great-aunt whose ministry towards those who lived on the margins was lauded over and over again, felt a fierce desire to honor where I came from.
I thought about the ways that family, encoded in both our DNA and in the expectations and norms of familial culture, is passed down, hand-over-hand, through generations. Of the way that my cousin, seated beside me, looked so much like me as a baby that sometimes we get confused looking at baby pictures. Of the way that I see my father’s engineer’s mind in how Whit approaches the world, with a determinedly 3D lens.
Genetics and traditions ripple outward as the generations unfold, but simultaneously there is an undeniable circling back to the source. As time moves forward it also reverberates back. The march of years is regular, like a drumbeat, but it is accompanied by an occasional swooping echo of the past into the future, unexpected and unpredictable (like Whit’s blue eyes). Where we come from is such a part of who we are, and sometimes I lose sight of that. I have deep roots and am grateful for days like yesterday that remind me of their steadiness and of their richness.