Family roots keep people grounded

Monday, March 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:56 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

It’s relatively rare these days to encounter people who have spent 20 or more years on the same job. The same can be said of people who have resided at the same location for that long. It seems to me that in my parents’ day, most of their friends stayed put in the same place for most of their lives. When I grew up and moved away from home, for years and years, I remember that hardly anything seemed to change between my return visits.

Now that neighborhoods, communities and individual circumstances seem to change overnight, I’ve come to value continuity as a rare commodity. It took me a long time to realize how important this constancy was to my sense of security. When you come from a large, close family where joys and sorrows are equally shared, it’s easy to feel lost in a world of plastic cubicles and casual acquaintances. I still have a difficult time understanding the lifestyles of people who surround themselves with electronic gadgets and are determined to isolate themselves from friends and family. While I certainly enjoy the benefits of time spent alone, there are other times when I appreciate the camaraderie of other individuals. I’m sure that people who lived in earlier generations would have a hard time accepting that support groups composed of strangers have taken over the roles of advisers and counselors once staffed by relatives.

I’m amazed and troubled about the number of older people who are trying to function without help because family members have abandoned them. While there are a number of organizations that rally to their aid and assistance, it seems aging without the companionship of a care group is a sad way to age. My favorite elderly couple is a pair of sisters-in-law who have combined families and joined forces to affirm their commitment to live independent lives. They work together, shop together and attend church together.

Mobility, of course, plays a major role in separating families and destroying their sense of connection. Although the wonders of technology make communication a lot easier, relationships carried on by e-mail lack the effectiveness of a warm smile, a tender touch and a big hearty, hug when things go wrong.

I believe maintaining family traditions goes a long way in keeping members in touch. Things like keeping the family house over several generations is a big way to reinforce the ties that bind. I know a family that has a huge family reunion every three years at the house and circulates quarterly newsletters to keep members in touch with things like marriages, births, graduations and deaths. That way, when the big gathering comes around, everyone is pretty much up-to-date on family happenings. I know another family that spends vacations together every two years. These members decide on an exotic location and try to spend several weeks together.

Some families, who are lucky enough to live in the same area, enjoy monthly dinners with each other. And not all family traditions involve family members being in the same place at the same time. There are small, traditional ways to celebrate kinship. For many, many years, my family has honored the tradition of naming a son Thomas and a daughter Mary in every generation. It’s our way of keeping the memory of the first Thomas and Mary alive in our hearts. Having at least one family member who keeps family records is a good tradition, and making sure each branch has a copy of the genealogical information tends to keep families rooted.

Some families are experiencing difficulties keeping in touch because some members have blended, interracial and interreligious relationships, and they find being introduced to customs and tradition with which they are unfamiliar unsettling. They resent being forced out of their comfort zones. Educating oneself about other cultures can be an invigorating and exciting adventure. It offers an opportunity for growth. Some couples combine traditions and customs and wind up with new versions, suitable to their own tastes.

An acquaintance gave me another book recently about the joys of aloneness. She is one of those folks who has been long estranged from her family and wants desperately to feel OK about it. Since I have a tendency to spend a lot of time alone, I gave it a read. Unfortunately, none of the reasons cited by the author were my reasons for locking myself in, so I didn’t really enjoy it. Actually, it has never bothered me that some people think loners are freaks of nature or worse, and I’ve never felt strange for avoiding crowds.

I think spiritual renewal is important, and for me, that’s better done alone. After that, I welcome the companionship of friends and family. I like being rooted and connected. I like to think that keeps me from falling off the edge of the earth.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen

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