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Sandy Banks

Discovering Ourselves in Family Ties

August 08, 2000|Sandy Banks

We are sitting at a kitchen table spread corner to corner with photographs, going over them one by one, in a kind of archeological dig through family lives past.

I am the guide on this expedition. My guest is a young cousin I barely know. He is staying with us for the weekend, visiting from his Washington, D.C., home. He is 19, a college student, yet it is hard to imagine him as a grown-up; when I last saw him, he was 10 years old.

My search for a touchstone to link us sends me scrambling to produce old photographs. They are the typical family pictures . . . special-occasion renditions of life--vacations, reunions, birthdays, barbecues. A row of kids perched on a couch, ordered to smile on the count of three. Grown-ups gathered around a table loaded with Budweiser and barbecued ribs. A baby in arms, teenagers dancing, an old man strumming a guitar.

We are not a family of photo albums, so this visit has sent me hunting through closets, digging through boxes and plastic bags, unaided by organization or chronological guides. And I unearth pictures I never knew I had, of peripheral, long-dead relatives and children I can no longer recognize.

"You look just like your dad," I tell him, pulling out an old photo of his father--a handsome young man in a military uniform. I suppose he's heard that all his life, yet still finds it a mystery.

I remember his father at that age--tall and dark, with the same deep voice that young Michael has, the same mischievous sense of humor, the same wry smile that softens the seriousness of his gaze.

Michael likely sees none of this when he looks at the photo or in the mirror. He cannot imagine his father as a child, any more than he can look ahead and see himself as a man of his father's age.

Still, he is fascinated, famished, full of curiosity as we paw through the mounds of pictures, piecing together our family's history. He finds himself among the photo subjects, a serious, dark-eyed little boy, surrounded by his sister and brother and cousins who look familiar but whose names he can't recall.

Every picture prompts a question: What was cousin Ray like as a kid? What brought Nana north to Ohio? Why do we all look so different? What was my Dad like when he was young?

And those questions unleash the stories I've heard, and the memories created during my life . . . family lore trickling down through me to the generation behind.

Evening fades and night slips into early morning, and still we sit poring over pictures. And I am struck by all I know of our family's history . . . not just the tragedies and the triumphs, but the twists and turns that have blurred our family lines and shaped us in the image of those who've gone.

I remember all the nights like this that I was the one who sat listening, prodding my aunts, uncles and cousins to share their memories with me. And now, pushed by the passage of time, I stand on the other side, sharing stories and secrets of our family's life.


My mother always told us stories--of her childhood on the farm in Alabama, the exploits of her seven brothers and sisters, their migration north to Cleveland, the way they helped each other through difficult years.

But I only half-listened as a child. Surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, I knew all I needed to know of family. It wasn't our shared history that mattered, it was the closeness I felt in the here and now.

It wasn't until I grew older and our family scattered to the winds that I understood how deep was my need for them, how important it was that I understood the forces that had shaped us, the ties that would bind us into the future.

So I realize now what Michael is after, and it is not genealogy. This is not merely a search for roots, an abstract quest for family history. It is a mission of self-discovery.


Tell us again how we're related, my kids ask, the night before Michael is to leave.

"Michael is Tommy's son. Tommy is my first cousin, Aunt Ora's oldest child. Aunt Ora is my mother's sister."

So that makes them and Michael . . . what? Second cousins? Third cousins? First cousins, twice removed? "Just call him cousin," I tell them.

The next morning, he bids us goodbye, standing at the door, clutching a wad of family pictures I have given him to share with his brothers and sisters.

"Thanks for everything, Aunt Sandy," he says. I smile and hug him, and realize that he has found the answer my children need in those photographs, that legacy that ties us to our family tree.

Cousin, aunt . . . it does not matter. We are simply family.


Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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