What Does It Mean to Connect to Family?


Different things to different people, I have learned

By Eric Peterschmidt

Family.

That word can mean different things to different people, I have learned.

There’s the obvious – the family you’re born into or adopted into – your birth family. In my case, that means my parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. As each generation reaches adulthood, we add spouses or partners and possibly children into the core family unit.

Then there’s the “chosen family.” Chosen family members are people so close to you they might as well have been part of your birth family – usually best friends, or best friends of your parents, or neighbors who were an extension of your own household. Just like with the birth family, as the generations grow older, the chosen family often expands to include chosen nieces and nephews and chosen in-laws as well.

For many, the chosen family is a wonderful extension to the birth family. For others, I have learned, the chosen family might be a replacement for the birth family.

A friend was telling me about a third category – the family you don’t know. She is certain that she has legions of cousins out there in the world, but has no idea who they are. Her mother was an only child, but her mother’s father was one of seven children – and they had children who had children. So the cousins are out there, but a generation removed. And, in her case, there are entire branches of her family tree that are unknown.

That changes the kitchen table…

My family experience is probably not the same as your family experience. My “kitchen table memories” actually took place – extended family gathered around the table after a meal, the elders sharing stories of their youth, the rest of us asking questions and listening carefully to the answers. Laughing and learning. Those memories are part of what made me bring TightKnit to life – to furnish a “virtual kitchen table” to anyone who would like to live a similar experience.

But not everyone had a kitchen table. Not every family shared stories. Not every family was fortunate enough to have a living elder generation to talk about how life was… back in the day. And for some, I have learned, the kitchen table was anything but a pleasant place to be.

Regardless of how you define family, or what your family experience looked like, the real and potential special connections to family are worthy of some reflection.

Why is the family connection so important?

Whether it’s good or bad or somewhere in between, understanding our family history can contribute to the person we are today. Did you aspire to have a work ethic like your grandfather? Perhaps you have a desire to have a relationship like your great aunt and uncle who have been in love for 70 years. Or perhaps the opposite – you vowed to NEVER be like that certain relative who consistently embarrassed the family (and always smelled like onions).

Knowing where we came from is what gives us our footing in the present. The family connection is the connection to something bigger than ourselves.

And more.

Interesting Stories and Bragging Rights

For some, the family connection gives us stories – maybe even bragging rights. Are you descended from one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence? Were your ancestors on the Mayflower? Many generations ago, was it a member of your family who built adobe homes in the great Southwest? Did your family members help settle New Orleans? Play in the first jazz band? Publish a book? Serve in a war?

A friend shared that she learned that her sixth great-grandfather was one of the last “witches” killed in Salem, Massachusetts. (Fortunately, he had already fathered his children prior to being hung, or she wouldn’t be here today.) Thanks to the magic of the internet, she has renderings of him and a few artifacts that she has added to a special album to share with her larger family. What a story!

Satisfying Curiosity and Solving Mysteries

Where did your family come from? How did YOU get to be where you are? Did your family arrive in America by land or by sea – or has your family been here since before history was well-recorded? Did your ancestors come here with a plan – or were they kidnapped and brought here against their will?

Do twins run in your family? Are there common family names throughout the generations? What ethnicities have combined together over the years to make you who you are?

What are you curious about? I have learned that we tend to get curious about different things at different times in our lives, right? When we’re having kids, we might like to know about historical family names. As we get older, it might be helpful to know about medical histories. If we have an extraordinary talent, it can be wonderful to learn that certain ancestors also had that same talent.

Connecting with Lost Family

The friend I mentioned above, who doesn’t know any of her cousins? She inherited one of those boxes we talk about – filled with family photos. Those photos include quite a few from her grandfather’s family – so she’s able to go back to a generation she has in common with the long-lost cousins and begin creating family albums.

That’s her plan. Then she will search for them and invite them to join her in the family albums and add their own photos of that generation and beyond.

She shared with us that her family today – the family she knows – is one sister, one daughter, and one grandson – and that’s it. Not a lot of people to share the old pictures with. Not a lot of people to exchange stories with. But by doing what she can to document her grandfather’s generation, and searching for the relatives of his siblings, she’s hoping to expand her family.

Doing that, she feels, will make her only child, and her child’s only child, more connected to the past.

Leaving a Legacy of Answers

Speaking of “connected to the past,” one of the most important benefits of connecting to family is what we leave behind for future generations.

When our friend’s mother passed away, she inherited the box I mentioned above – only now there was no one to ask about any of the pictures. Some had writing on the back, but most did not – leaving mysteries to be solved. Who were these people? Where was this place? What was happening here? When was this?

In her case, connecting to her lost family might help her “famsource” some of those answers.

In my case, where I have a big family and several elders still available, I started asking the questions right away, and I had a LOT of people who could help me fill in the blank spaces and connect the dots. We are STILL asking questions, doing research, digging through archives, and finding answers. We have a lot of fun doing our detective work, too.

Time to Take Action

Whatever your reason, no matter what drives you, the time to take action is now. As I have learned, we cannot count on question-answering elders to be around forever. We don’t know where the stories might take us, nor how many layers we might need to uncover to find real answers.

It doesn’t need to be a giant project that never gets done. Do a little. Then do a little more. Involve a sibling or a kid or a parent if you can. Start making the family connections to the past.

And, as you are creating memories today, capture them in a way that will make YOU the ancestral hero a few generations down the line. That camping trip, or that Disney trip, or that egg hunt – they’ll all be memories that your future generations will want to relive at some point. Leave that legacy for them, too.

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