Eight years ago, when my husband and I were dating, he spent an evening drawing my family tree. As we sat in a restaurant waiting for dinner, he pulled out a piece of paper and began to make a diagram of my mother’s side of the family. “So your grandpa was Baxter, and his siblings are Helen, Walt, Bob, Carol …” Going off of my dictation, he proceeded to draw a ball-point chart of the four generations of my mother’s family. (“Write small, “I cautioned him. “You have no idea how big this family is.”)
This spontaneous diagram was prompted not just by curiosity, but by Boy-Scout-style pragmatism. Scott was about to attend our annual Family Get-Together, and, like any guy hoping to make a good impression, he wanted to be prepared.
These family gatherings are a fixture of the summertime. They began in 1973, when I was a few months old. My grandfather had passed away suddenly of a heart attack, and his four siblings and their spouses and children gathered at my grandmother’s house after the funeral. Out of that sad occasion, an annual tradition was born. Every year, the generations converge upon my grandmother’s house. Every year there are kids running around underfoot and people signing the huge tablecloth and the pock of the ping-pong ball as it is batted across the net. There is tri-tip grilled to perfection by my uncle; there is homemade salsa, and jokes that are even saucier.
It’s a pretty a mad whirl, actually. With around seventy people there, I never get a chance to visit with everyone. But thanks to these celebrations, I’ve been given a real gift: a knowledge of my extended family that not many people can boast. There are so many shared family traits: the wide, toothy smile, the ease with jokes, the tendency to break into song at random moments. I see the spry grace of my ninety-year-old grandmother, who has spent a lifetime doing concrete actions – cooking, cleaning, hosting — to make other people’s lives happier. And the more time I spend with my relatives, the more I see how her example has filtered down to her kids, her grandkids, and now her great-grandkids.
These reunions have taught me that there is a power in knowing your people. Whether your family is biological or adoptive, the folks who raised you leave an influence on you. Knowing the people who started the chain … or, to be more precise, who continued it … is pretty powerful stuff. In getting to know them, you learn more about yourself as well.
Lately I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my Catholic faith. Honestly, I feel like I’m doubly blessed. In addition to my California relatives with their in-jokes and casual optimism, I have that vibrant thing called the communion of saints: that huge sprawling family up in heaven, a family that we all get to share.
Truthfully, I didn’t always see this as positive thing. Years ago, when I was distant from the Church, I saw the saints in a particularly negative light. To me they were irritating goody-two-shoes meant to make the rest of us feel bad by comparison. One of the greatest gifts of returning to Catholicism has been discovering the humanity of these fascinating people, and realizing the ways – the many, many way s—that they’ve influenced me.
It’s because of a saint, for example, that I have a certain understanding of the spiritual importance of ecology (thank you, St. Francis of Assisi). St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who faced intense emotional struggles, has been a source of support when my own anxieties have seemed larger than my ability to contain them. The story of St. Maximilian Kolbe – who, like me, was Polish – impressed me deeply as a kid. Giving up his life to save another prisoner at Auschwitz showed me that people can and do follow Christ’s words:”No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
And watching over them all is Mary, the greatest of saints. She’s shown me that radical faith in God may not guarantee an easy life, but it will transform the world. Like any good mother, her influence just keeps filtering down through the generations. Looking closely at the lives of many of the saints, you can see her own example reflected in their actions and in their writings.
It’s a gift, really, to have this heavenly family. As I read about the saints, as I pray with them in times of crisis or doubt, they just keep becoming more alive to me. And as I learn about their own human frailties, the bond gets closer, the similarities between us more clear. I see where things come from: my spiritual beliefs, my religious traditions. Through their stories, I learn how to reconcile the questions I have about my faith. Thanks to them, I start to understand my own little slot on this massive, vibrant, spiritual family tree.
In getting to know the saints, I get to know myself.
And that’s pretty powerful stuff.
Copyright 2009 Ginny Moyer