A Living, Breathing Family Tree

Weekly Writing Challenge: Your challenge is to take something intensely personal — the bits and pieces that make you YOU — and use them as a springboard for a post that makes a larger point and resonates with lots of other readers.

Intertwined within each of us are the colours, the mannerisms, the internal chemistry of those who have gone before. Our ancestors, our elders – if we look to them we see how we came to be who we are. And looking in the mirror or at our descendants, we see the branches overlapping, interwoven, reflecting back through the generations. A living, breathing family tree.

As a young child, I had the face and colouring of my Aboriginal ancestors and the fiery red-tinged hair of the Irish. My small nose was wide and upturned, my brow bone prominent, my hair was curly. Inwardly, I was timid, easily intimidated, lacking in confidence, but quick to flash into a temper.

As I grew, my face paled, my brow bone softened, my eyes lightened and the fire in my hair dimmed. But both outwardly and inwardly, I still carry the hallmarks of my parents and our ancestors.

My father’s line is a mix of English and French, the French having intermarried with local Aboriginal families – I have always liked the story of the two French brothers who married two Mohawk sisters. My father and his siblings are striking with their dark skin, hair and eyes and their somewhat un-European appearances.

My mother’s line is a mix of English (I maintain that they were originally Welsh) and Irish. Other than my maternal grandmother, who seems to somehow more closely resemble my father’s family, they are all fair-skinned, generally with blonde hair on the Welsh side and auburn to red hair on the Irish side. My mother is a perfect combination of her parents – dark hair, blue eyes and fair skin.

Unfortunately, both my maternal and paternal lineages exhibit the same tendencies to worry and to fear the worst, to stress and to suffer from anxiety. Perhaps I’m doomed in that respect, although it is certainly something I am very actively working to overcome.

At 38, what do I see when I look at my reflection in the shadowed pool at the base of my family tree?

A level gaze, eyes set close to the bridge of my nose, ridged with short, dark brown lashes. Lips full and slightly downturned, lending me a grave, at times severe appearance. Until I smile. Short, tightly cropped dark brown hair, with the odd red, gold and silver glints. High cheekbones, angular jaw, pointed chin. Dark brown eyebrows neither thin nor wide. Small ears. Average size nose.

My eyes, I was told at an early age, are my best feature. I’m not sure whether that has changed since grade 8. I see them reflected back at me when I look at my son, and I must admit that his eyes are magical.

Hazel. But there are so many colours that make up hazel eyes. Ours are rimmed in an outer layer of grey-green, then peridot green flecked with gold, bleeding into golden brown. Where does this colour come from? Everyone in my family either has dark, coffee brown eyes (my father and his family, my maternal grandmother) or blue (my mother and all in her family except her mother). Perhaps this is what you get when you mix the two.

At an earlier age, I did dye my hair for fun, for experimentation, but I have generally really liked my hair colour. And any other colour makes my pale but olive-hued skin look strange. I used to wish, though, that it would grow long and thick, down my back. But it doesn’t. It is thin, flicks this way and that, has a prominent cowlick in the front – which I’m sorry to have passed on to my son – and doesn’t grow past my shoulders. I used to wear it up all the time, as that was the only way it really suited me. About 10 years ago, I gave up, faced facts, and had it all shorn off into a pixie cut. Now, it is easy to take care of, and it suits me well enough that I’m frequently stopped in the street and asked where I get my hair cut.

Some believe one’s power lies in one’s hair, and that to cut it is to cut one’s power. I have found the opposite.

I guess in many ways, I have grown into being truly me.

With my time off these days, I have lots of opportunity for introspection. I wonder how much of my anxious nature can be nurtured away. How much can yoga and breathing and writing and contemplating and therapy tame and temper my deeply ingrained nature?

The entangled vines of my anxiety and worry and insecurity wind around me, tugging. They are strong, composed of fibres that cannot simply be pruned. Their ends weave in and out through time and back through the generations, disappearing into a distance whose depth I cannot fathom. I can only follow them as far back as my grandparents but I am sure they go back much further.

As I continue to contemplate my reflection, I begin to see other similarities, branches which stretch from an earlier time, an earlier generation, reaching out to touch me and, in some cases, budding now in my son.

I have the reclusive, introverted tendencies of my father, borne possibly in part from our insecurity, but like my mother, when I am out and among friends, I am happy, energized and social. My son, on the other hand, is a pure extrovert, though he enjoys a quiet hour or two, spent lost in a book. The love of reading comes from my mother, passing through me,  and stretches back to my grandfather.

I am blessed with my parents’ creativity, though in me it manifests itself through words rather than pencil or paintbrush.

I enjoy my Great Aunt’s intense love of nature, though not her love of camping. I also, as I get older, seem to have developed her tendency to cry at almost everything and to forget things as I turn around.

I exhibit some of my father’s and his mother’s frugality, though this is tempered by the influence of my mother, who has an abundant appreciation for fine things and the enjoyment of life.

My compulsive need for cleanliness comes from both sides, though pales in comparison to my husband’s commitment to neatness.

My love of food, cooking and travel, all of which I see as connected, were inherited I think solely from my mother. And these I have passed on to my son, who has also inherited his grandmother’s love of fine china and silverware.

The latter seems to have skipped my generation. That and my parents’ impeccable style, both in fashion and in interior design. Like math, it is something my brain cannot process.

Speaking of which, other than my maternal grandmother, we are all hopeless at math. I may suffer the most from this. My son, however, is a math genius, able to process his times tables in his head and faster than I can on paper.

There are funny aspects of my parents in me, too. My father’s family exhibits klutziness, has small teeth, bunioned feet. I also inherited from him my light sleeping and vivid dreaming. My mother and my son, on the other hand, sleep like the dead. Lighting storms and burglar alarms do not wake them.

And we are all rather short in stature.

It is fascinating to stand at the base of the family tree and to look up through its branches, watching them weave in and out, pushing out knots, and stretching up and out through the ages.

A tree is strong, constant, a witness through the generations. You can count them in its rings, it’s lifeline.

It is wonderfully comforting to think of the consistency and the solidness of the tree, to realize that the same wood and the same life is present down here at the roots as one would find many feet up at the tips of the newest branches, and in the buds that are yet to come.

Related posts:

What’s in a Name? (silverleafjournal.wordpress.com)

The Photograph (silverleafjournal.wordpress.com)

What do you see? (afitandfocusedfuture.com)

11 thoughts on “A Living, Breathing Family Tree

  1. Thanks for sharing these personal details. Now I have a clearer picture of you! I’d like to hear more on how keeping your hair cut short gives you power. I liked that section a lot and it left me wanting to know more. Maybe that would be a good writing prompt? Expand on that experience. 🙂

    • Maybe one day I’ll do a coming out post with my name and picture and everything 🙂 …though I enjoy the anonymity, mostly from the rest of the people in my life, including from work. That’s a great idea for a prompt. I’ll have to give it some thought. And I like that you’re giving me prompts!

  2. What a beautiful piece of writing, Silverleaf; I adore the extended metaphor and your descriptions are stunning. You sound lovely! xxx

  3. This is beautiful SIlverleaf. So great to know more about you and hope we do get to know your name at least at some point. I am thinking about what you said about anxiety, and introspection. If you do a lot of that, will it help ameliorate the anxious tendencies? I don’t know; I think about this often. This makes me want to go deeper as well into my family tree……

    • Thank you, that’s very sweet. It’s funny, I want to put my picture up and link to my Facebook and have my name out there for those of you who read my blog. But I feel I need to distance my Silverleaf personna from work and others in my life. So, for now, I remain anonymous. But I’m really touched by the comments from those, such as yourself, who are happy to know more about me.

      This prompt was so similar to your last post!

      I’m working this morning on a post about introspection and anxiety and though I don’t go into that particular point, you are quite right that over-thinking it often causes you to become despondent and to get stuck in a rut.

  4. This was an absolutely fascinating way to explore this topic. Beautifully written, thought provoking, introspective and honest. Truly a delight and insightful read.

    Short hair does empower – I too have thin flat hair – and just find it too much of a hassle to keep it long. When long, it’s always up – so what’s the point? Easier to wash and go …. I think it reflects on the qualities of self-understanding and confidence to say : this is who I am, as a part of my physical whole … I embrace it … and feel good about it … and me.” There is nothing more empowering than having a great haircut and feeling on top of your game. Lol … I suppose for those who are non follicle-y challenged, this must sound very strange.

    Thanks for sharing in depth. 🙂

    • Thank you! Your comment means a lot to me. I’m glad this post spoke to you. I’ve just posted something specifically dedicated to the short hair aspect, and it is very much in keeping with your thoughts here. Thanks for sharing as well 🙂

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