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)