Family Tree

When I was a child, one of my aunts started keeping a family tree. And over time, it became the final word whenever there was a question or disagreement regarding any disputed fact of our family’s past. How could I know that, as an adult, I’d have to make sense of the secrets it held and accept how mangled and incomplete it really was.

The family tree wasn’t anything fancy, not a chart, just pieces of paper. A list, typed-up on a typewriter, of everyone and their children along with birth dates. At each family reunion, new mimeographed pages were passed out that could be inserted into the existing ones. My mother was the oldest of six kids from a very large and close family and I was the first grandchild, oldest of nearly thirty cousins. As each generation multiplied, I’d needed a three-ring binder to hold it all.

Then, as a college student, I wanted to clear up a question about my cousins who’d been part of my best family memories. Looking over the family tree, I noticed something odd. I couldn’t find one particular cousin.

I was sure my mother’s sister, Marge, had had a child but only her name appeared on the document. I asked Mom and she, rather hesitantly, corroborated my memories. As we were talking, I flashed back to an incident when I was about nine years old.

As they did regularly, my aunts and grandmother had come over for one of their card parties. These times were as much fun for me as for them because I loved all the chatter and laughing. I’d sit quietly in the corner trying to understand the latest gossip. But on that day, Aunt Marge was absent and their whispered conversations were out of the ordinary.

I tried to hear but they seemed to be purposely keeping something from me and to be judging Aunt Marge. She was one of my favorite aunts and nothing she did could ever seem wrong to me. My questions were shushed but after everyone left I asked Mom what was going on. She fumbled around uncomfortably before finally speaking.

“Well, I guess you’re old enough to know. Your Aunt Marge is going to have a baby. And she isn’t married,” she said. Then she got very busy folding clothes, clearly wanting me to let it go.

“But how can she help that?” I questioned, with the innocence of a fourth grader before sex education.

“She can’t help it if God gave her a baby,” I reasoned. “Father Elverman says babies are a gift from God. So how can she help it if God decided she should have a baby and she isn’t married?” When Mother gave me no straight answers and then told me to “just never mind,” I couldn’t be stopped.

“When I go to school tomorrow, I’m going to ask Father Elverman,” I declared. “He told us that babies are gifts from God and I don’t see how that can be wrong! She couldn’t help it!” I don’t recall how Mom got me to promise I wouldn’t go to Father Elverman, but she did. Perhaps this was one of my first lessons in the power of family secrets.

Aunt Marge did have her baby, a boy named Dennis. Right after the birth, on one of my many weekend visits to Grandma’s, I went up to Aunt Marge’s bedroom and saw Dennis sleeping in a crib. He was so small. And Aunt Marge seemed so happy. She fed and changed him and seemed more content than I’d ever seen her. I was excited that I had a new cousin and couldn’t wait until he could join us in our cousin games. Aunt Marge even let me hold him once.

Then a short time later, Dennis died. It was called “crib death” back then. He just didn’t wake up one morning. At my next visit, Aunt Marge was crying and getting clothes ready for the undertaker. After that, nothing more was said about Dennis. It was almost like he’d never existed.

Now, as an adult looking over the family tree once again, I had a more specific question for Mom. With the passage of time, she’d become more comfortable about touchy topics, more ready to share.

“Why isn’t Dennis in the family tree? He was a part of the family, after all,” I mused. She thought for a minute before she spoke.

“Well, I guess people just didn’t do it that way back then.”

“Oh. Because Aunt Marge wasn’t married?”

“That’s right. And because he died so young.”

“What about Dennis’s father?”

“He was a man Marge had gone with on and off for some time. But at the time she got pregnant, he was married. “

“Why didn’t she give the baby up for adoption?”

“Oh, that wasn’t done back then,” Mom said. ” You know my Aunt Trixie’s daughter, Pat? She was born out of wedlock. Trixie just lived at home and kept the baby. If they could, people got married. If not, they just took the baby into the family.” As we talked more, Mom got a mischievous look on her face.

“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but all my sisters and my brother had to get married,” she smugly added.

“What?” I gasped. “You mean…” At the mention of each name, Mom shook her head up and down with a sheepish grin. That turned into a puffed up posture as she filled in more details.

“I remember when I was in high school and a girl in my class got pregnant. All I could think was I’d never let that happen to me. And I didn’t.”

”And you were the only one. How interesting,” I responded. “Funny how, back at that time, everyone was judging Aunt Marge but they weren’t so perfect themselves.”

“I guess so,” Mom continued. “It’s just one of those things that everybody knows but nobody talks about in polite company.”

Humph, polite company. Small actions still speak volumes. It will always bother me that Dennis was left out of the family tree. For whatever reason. Treated as a second class citizen. So, if the family tree was being done when Pat was born, she’d have been omitted too. Even more unfair.

Dennis, born in the mid-1950’s, would be a grown man now. Who knows what kind of life he would have had. I’m sure Aunt Marge would have been a good mother. And Dennis would have had the same, wonderful childhood memories I have. I probably would have been his babysitter, same as I was with my younger sisters and brothers. He’d have turned out fine.

Aunt Marge died some years ago. We stopped having family reunions so the pages aren’t updated and handed out anymore. I didn’t know it, but the family tree was in for another revision.

Around the time of her 92nd birthday, as Mom was “putting her affairs in order,” she privately told each of her children that she’d been born out of wedlock. She thought it wouldn’t be fair for her us to see the truth on her birth certificate after she’d died.

So, Grandpa wasn’t really my grandpa after all. Now I understand why my mother always called him Claude. But that’s another story. And if the rules were strictly followed, perhaps my mother might not have been included in the family tree, gnarled and unruly mess that it’s turning out to be. I have to wonder what other secrets are still out there.

The realization was shocking that there’s a whole side of our family we know nothing about. I’d always felt so lucky that, with the help of the family tree, I knew who everyone was three generations back in my family. I guess that’s the end of that childish fantasy.

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