Great strength comes from family tradition. I’ve seen it once again for myself, a gathering of elders I’ve known all my life. In the days and hours leading up to this October reunion, trepidation warred with exhilaration in the prospect of seeing my kin again. Three days past my last contact, I am only now able to let the anxiety fall away.
Why anxiety? The clan was the community, at least for many of us older ones, and gathered each summer for a week of Rook tournaments, debates on myriad subjects, talent shows, and general mayhem. These people were my judges as well as my mentors, the audience for baby pranks and elementary accomplishments. Like my forty first cousins, of which I was the fifth oldest, I was subjected to quizzes and scrutiny on everything from the ruffles in my skirt to the cleverness of my retort.
A person would think that by the age of sixty-seven, I would have grown past the traumas and dramas of childhood. But no, like the genes we share, interactions with the pantheon of my mother’s family remain a strong influence. I should be glad of the genes—of my Grandmother Sylvia’s nine children, six remain among the living. The oldest recently celebrated her 96th birthday. The youngest, feted at this recent gathering for his 80th, remains—like all of them—in remarkably good health.
Matriarch to her own tribe of five offspring, my mother was the middle child of nine born to an even sterner matriarch in Sylvia. Herself the oldest of nine, Sylvia followed a lineage of strong women who simultaneously chafed at the yoke of traditional wifedom while, at least in theory, subscribed to the religious role of subservient ‘helpmate.’ Sylvia’s mother Zeulia raised nine in a marriage with a man never far from his Bible but nonetheless willing to watch his aging wife wade out into mid-winter snow to gather firewood. Zeulia’s mother Armina enjoyed a few years of happy marriage to Jeptha Futrell and the arrival of two sons (one of whom, Junius Marion Futrell, became a governor of Arkansas) before losing Jeptha to pneumonia and remarrying during Arkansas’ devastating aftermath of the Civil War. Armina’s mother Frances Massey, as the fabled family account goes, grew up in the lap of southern luxury at her father’s plantation only to elope at age thirteen with the property’s caretaker Jimmy Eubanks. Their first child, born when she was fourteen, was said to have a head the size of a teacup and yet grew to robust male adulthood.
By the mid-1840s, Jimmy and Frances crossed the Mississippi River on a barge and set up housekeeping in the northeast wilds of the new state of Arkansas. Subsequent generations married and lived in similar barebones circumstances in the farmlands near Crowley’s Ridge. After the Civil War, some of the family settled in Texas, and by the time my mother was born in 1923, entire households pulled up stakes each season to pick cotton in Texas before returning to “God’s Country” for the winter.
At the time Sylvia gave birth to her first child, her mother Zeulia was still producing children of her own. Both generations lived together at times in dog-trot houses on Ozark dirt farms, scraping up a livelihood from gardens, milk cows, and free range chickens and hogs. Despite their often desperate economic conditions, the families pursued education. Of my cousins, several hold graduate degrees and many more undergraduate degrees, while others have become successful entrepreneurs, engineers, and educators.
We are told that our genes carry not only the codes for our biology, but also the encoded experiences of our ancestors. I’m left to wonder if my tendencies toward worry derive at least in part from the epigenetic traces of the Civil War and the Great Depression. Is my desire for solitude and rural landscapes the result not only of my own life but even more from the generations of ancestry that found safety and sustenance in the land?
As far back as genealogical research has taken us, efforts largely spearheaded by one of my aunts, the family follows a long tradition of yeoman farmers. Perhaps we were serfs not too many centuries ago, tuned to the change of seasons and the requirement to please a rich master. Our histories find sparse mention of cities and their trappings. We care more about the weather than women’s clubs, more for landscapes than local politics. Yet we do care, passionately, about our freedoms and the direction of the nation despite the fact that we divide fairly evenly between conservative and liberal.
Of the forty cousins, only fourteen made an appearance at this gathering. Only six or seven lingered for more than one evening. My oldest, now turning forty, waded in and was welcomed as were a few other grandchildren. My mother and two of her five siblings live in this area. Three others, two from Texas and one from New Mexico, stayed for six days, variously taking naps, visiting graves and old homesteads, and arguing over Rook scores. Wrenched to see them come and equally wrenched to see them go, I have since stared out my office window to contemplate the emotions set in play by the event.
The cousins who did attend agreed not to let our next meetings occur only at funerals. Inevitably, the funerals will come, not just for our aunts and uncle, but for us. There’s the strange comfort of time and conversation with those we’ve known all our lives, even though as adults we have little in common, hardly know each other at all. There are our children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren of which we are barely cognizant, yet each of them remain connected in these threads that grow ever thinner as the generations expand.
Thus is the history of all man’s tribes.
As children, my cousins and I not only played together at the annual family reunions but also at reunions of Sylvia’s siblings. We learned the names and faces of great aunts and second cousins, many of them still firmly entrenched in the lands of northeast Arkansas. The rest of us have remained as near as northwest Arkansas or as far as Georgia, California, and all points in between. There’s a mathematical impossibility to any attempt to acquaint the offspring of the forty cousins, or even to gather the forty cousins in one place.
Whether knowledge of one’s ancestry holds any relevance may be debated from various points of view. Whether I want to have these ties or not, I can’t imagine life without them. The huge array of people linked to me through family offers an oddly reassuring backdrop to any of my peculiar interests and life patterns. I’m no longer a child intimidated by their observation or awed by their arguments. They care about me as I care about them, not because we’ve done anything in particular to earn the caring, but simply because we are connected by inheritance.
We’re still a tribe.