Family Trees

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The phrase “tracing my roots” is an extension of the metaphor that describes family lineage as a tree with roots extending ever downward into the past and branches spreading ever upwards into the future. People charting the roots and branches of their particular family tree do so with names, places, and dates. They look for, and note, persons of distinction among their predecessors, and this distinction in their family’s past lends distinction to their present, to their blood. Locating your family is a way of locating yourself, of answering the question of why you are the way you are. Whether your ancestors achieved fame or infamy, triumph or tragedy, great love or great sorrow, you marvel at their lives and wonder at the forces of biology and time, at all the tessellations required to allow history to start with them and lead to you.

An impromptu visit to Toronto in response to a family medical situation has given me a rare opportunity to observe three generations of my mother’s family as they interact with, conflict with, and occasionally reflect one another. The unplanned nature of this visit and the uncertainty that prompted it mean that no one is on their “Christmas family-time” best behaviour. We’re just co-existing in my grandparents’ house for a few days–eating, sleeping, alternately trying to be useful and trying to get out of being useful (or maybe that’s just me–I really don’t know how to cook with other people’s food). It’s both fascinating and sobering: the similarities, the differences, the inevitability of change (of physical condition, of the roles and responsibilities necessitated by that condition, of familial relationships based on these new roles). And the realization that these changes aren’t anything new in the history of families.

Despite these stories being old and oft-repeated over time, they are still new to me and constantly in flux. I am, more or less, neatly half-Ukrainian and half-Latvian. How I feel, however, changes all the time. As a kid, I spent a year in Latvia as well as a lot of time with my mom’s Latvian-speaking side of the family. This is why I can sing Latvian folk songs despite (regretfully) not being able to speak Latvian. Latvian-ness was an ever-present force in my family. Of course, there was the matter of my Ukrainian last name. Can’t be helped, can’t be gotten around. It’s Ukrainian and I would be reminded of that every single time a school official stumbled over it. Then we spent a year in Poland and glory be! Every single person knew exactly how to pronounce it. My Ukrainian-ness seemed obvious and normal (Ukraine is, of course, right next door) and my Latvian-ness was an afterthought for a time.

indexIt’s been like this for most of the past few years, feeling connected to one culture or the other depending on which side of the family I was visiting or thinking about. In the past few years I’ve been involved in making shows with fellow half-Ukrainian theatre artist, Aliya Griffin (and taking Ukrainian dance classes!), and my creative and cultural life has seen a lot of Ukraine. But now, I’ve come to Toronto just in time for Latvians all over the world to celebrate Jāņ(mid-summer) which meant going to the Latvian Centre for beer (Lithuanian, sadly, but it will have to do), pirags (fun fun bacon buns), and song. So yes, I’m both Latvian and Ukrainian, always, a product of recent and not-so-recent history, and somewhere in there is a German predecessor (just one I like to think although of course I guess it doesn’t work that way) and one Ukrainian horse thief.

When you’re thinking about your place in your family and the world, it can be easier to start small–for me, I can start at the tiny intersection of my family tree where my parents branch out into my sisters and me. Growing up in the same house, it was easy to see how I was like my sisters. After all, we were similar in appearance, had similar talents when it came to school and athletics, wore each other’s hand-me-down clothes, sounded like each other (people couldn’t tell us apart on the phone), and were often treated as a unit by both family and friends. It was also easy to see the ways in which we were different–my older sister was more outgoing, my little sister was shy, etc.

But the differences and similarities we exhibited in our parents’ home are only part of the story of the variations I anticipate in the lives of our great-grandchildren. When I visited my sisters in their own homes I found myself confused by their kitchens. Where was the breakfast cereal? Where was the stuff required to make all the meals my parents used to make? Why was there kale in the fridge? Was someone really going to sit down and eat this mango? WHERE WAS ALL THE MEAT? I quickly began to form the idea that my sisters had veered away from our childhood eats while I’d remained steadfast to them.

Which is in fact not true; we’ve just chosen which pieces of home to bring with us. I always liked the pantries full of crackers and breakfast cereal, so that’s what I have. And I’m not as faithful to my parents’ kitchen as I like to think–there’s a lot I’ve changed, even in old favourite recipes, to suit my new tastes. It’s just small changes, here and there, but add time and biology and circumstance, and who knows where we end up?

On a visit to my parents’ house several years ago, I found somewhere the cover for their old toaster. (It’s beige with mushrooms on it and says, “CHAMPIGNONS” in brown letters). I tried it on my toaster in Vancouver but it didn’t fit so I put it in the outer pocket of one of my suitcases and forgot about it. Months or years later, I was in my sister’s kitchen and realized that her toaster was the old one from home. I asked her if she wanted the cover for it and she said yes. I looked in my suitcase and it was still there, ready to be returned to its rightful place.

I tell this story because although my family and I still have the same inside jokes and commitment to each other, the different physical landscapes we inhabit (our cities, our homes) are strange to me. I get lost in places I expect to find familiar (my sisters’ kitchens, for example), and I search for continuity–old things in new places.

All this is to say that we are not our families but we are pieces from the same shape, like dandelion seeds on the wind. Where we land is anybody’s guess and, with luck and flexibility, we can pretty much thrive anywhere. One day you realize that you have changed the story of your family simply by moving to another city, or adapting your home to your needs, or taking a job, or getting married. And so Ukrainian horse thieves and Latvian egg farmers beget teachers and graphic designers and publicists and me. How far away are my roots, now? And how wide is their reach?

Please excuse the haphazard careening from one thing to another in this post. This week has been more about my grandparents, aunts and uncles, mom, sister, and cousins, than about the blog. But I do like thinking about families, so I’ll probably blog about them again.

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