The Secret of Immortality

I grew up in suburban Toronto. It irritated me no end to know that most of the neighbourhood knew me as either someone's child or sibling. I have a name, an identity. Why does no one seem to recognize that? When we vacationed at my grandparent' home, I again found that insidious labelling. "Oh, so you're Pearle's grandchild!" or "You're Lynn's little one? My, how you've grown!" Only the words were changed by the different generations. The humiliation of not having my own name didn't alter.

I felt threatened, too, by that loss of individuality. I felt that I deserved better than to be known more by my family than by my own name. In some ways, it made me feel that I was, and always would be, a child in the eyes of the community. And everyone knows that children should be seen and not heard. That's what I thought when I was in my teens, when I knew everything.

It took a while for me to learn that our names are important. They not only identify us within the community, but outside the community as well. "Smalltown, My Country" makes it onto the map, for good or ill, by the people within it. What is Brantford, Ontario without Wayne Gretsky? Or Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan without the notorious Colin Thatcher? How many other small towns have found their way to the outside world by dint of being the hometown of someone famous or infamous?

For a city brat like me, understanding directions to some places is a bit of an adventure. I've learned to ask for "other directions" when visiting my rural friends for the first time. It's rather daunting to find yourself out in the middle of nowhere, not a street sign for miles, and knowing that you have to "turn left at the old McDonald place". What some people forget is that the dilapidated building on the corner of the crossroads may not bear any resemblance to the prosperous farm it was at the turn of the century. The last century.

Marriages, too, have a funny way of being handed down verbally. "I remember him now," I once overheard in the coffee shop. "He married So-and-so's oldest granddaughter." I know some people who can't remember my name, but they know my husband's family back for about four generations. "Oh, you married William's grandson, did you? I remember going to William's General Store. His grandparents used to run it, you know."

It always amazes me, given the penchant people have for 'family' that there hasn't been an obituary that reads "John Doe died on Friday, April 13, 2001. He is predeceased by his mother (one of the Smith girls) and his grandfather (grandson of the former Miss Jones who taught for years at the school on Old Man Brown's west quarter). John is survived by his wife of 40 years (one of the Henrys from down south), his two boys and their wives.

Genealogy, it seems, has gone from being a 'nobleman's heritage' to a thriving business. My mother-in-law took great pride in showing me a copy of her family tree. It stretches back an astounding (for me) six generations. I knew my paternal grandmother's maiden name, and one or two other family names, but I wasn't clear on the connection to me.

Suddenly, I felt lost. Who was my family? Where did we start and how did we get here? Where do I belong?

My aunt provided me with a starting point to finding out. My second cousin, twice removed (she and my grandfather were the grandchildren of the same man) helped discover our Irish ancestors. I read the "Family Tree" with great interest and a wave of relief. I had an identity that went back to 19th century Ireland.

It's ironic, though. Now that I understand who and what my family is, now that I understand the connection between me and my great-great-grandfather, there's no one around who knows enough about me or my family to use it.

I was trying to describe someone to my daughter the other day, but the girl's name escaped me. "You know," I finally said in frustration, "J.'s daughter." My efforts earned me a huge, almost-a-teenager sigh and a disgusted look. "That's C., Mom. Gees, you must be getting old if you can't remember that." It made me smile. I'd come full circle without realizing it, and it felt good.

I could never see why a person was known by his people, his family and family name, rather than by who he was. It makes sense to me now. I can see the connection, the continuity, the belonging. We, as individuals, are small pieces in the living jigsaw puzzle of Life. We are identified by the part of the picture we display. We are identified by the part of the whole that we represent. We have, in a way, found the ultimate dream of humanity.

From our ancestors to the infinite future, we have found immortality in our Family Name.