25 January 2019

Did Your Ancestors Break the Mold?

There's at least one in every generation. The rebel who doesn't do what's expected. I found one this week.

My closest relatives in my parents' generation grew up in the same neighborhood. Because they were so close together, each mom helped raise her siblings' and her cousins' kids.

Because of that shared childhood, I figured my more distant cousins were raised just like me. After all, we all share the same roots. How different could our parents be?

Pretty different, actually.

The building where my mother's extended family lived.
The building where my mother's extended family lived. Their church was on the next block. So was my dad.

Seeing How My More Distant Cousins Grew Up

I went to a family funeral on Tuesday. The deceased (let's call her T) was my mom's 2nd cousin. T's daughter gave a unique eulogy at the funeral. Since her mother always wanted to be a writer, she delivered the eulogy like a book. She told us T's story in chapters.

Two of my mom's cousins, R and T. Everyone grew up together.
Two of my mom's cousins, R and T.
Everyone grew up together.
I learned T's ideas about life and child-rearing were dramatically different than my mom's. T was a strong-willed, open-minded, self-confident woman. More so than any other woman of her generation in my family. One thing that made T different was her mom. She was an entrepreneur and a tough businesswoman. T carried on the business in her own way. She worked all her life, and she enjoyed it.

Because T raised 3 remarkable children, meeting my 3rd cousins was like stepping into an alternate universe. Their mom did things that my mom wouldn't do in a thousand years.
  • When her husband didn't want to go on a particular vacation, T took the kids and went without him. My mother is still horrified when I drive somewhere alone.
  • When her daughter's friends needed a ride to a Queen concert in the 1980s, T drove them into New York City…and stayed for the concert. My mother could never handle driving in a city.
  • When her children's school friends came to the house—which they did all the time—T was the adult they all confided in. They didn't worry about her ratting them out to their parents. They listened to her advice. My house was not the one all the kids came to.
T taught her children to be adventurous, nurturing, and hard-working.

How Does This Relate to Our Ancestors?

This got me thinking about our earlier, shared ancestors. They lived in tiny, rural Italian towns for hundreds of years.

They were peasants: farmers, shoemakers, and shopkeepers. They lived with their parents until they married, and then they often lived next door. They were illiterate. It'd be surprising if anyone in their towns ever read the newspaper before World War I.

But I wonder. Were there women with an independent streak? Were there parents who wanted their children to have a different life? More than just a good piece of land to farm?

Without written or oral history, how can we know? One thing we can do is look for deviations from the norm. For instance, a set of my great grandparents did not follow the traditional Italian baby-naming conventions. They didn't name a single one of their 6 babies after their own parents.

Was this a rebellious streak? My parents broke those rules, too, otherwise you'd call me Mary. It made my grandfather angry as can be that my brother didn't have his name. But I imagine my parents were thinking like the Americans they were.

And what about the young men, like both of my grandfathers, who went to America and never looked back? Were they more self-confident than the others? More independent? Or were they the only able-bodied sons?

How can you identify the rebels in your family tree? Did their independence lead them to a better life, or a worse one? T sure had a great life. Her legacy is already strong in her grandchildren.

Is it too late for us to break the mold?

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I do a lot of contemplating about family patterns and "mold"-breaking. I enjoyed this post!