How secrets from your family tree can enhance your life
Until last week, I’d only seen the right half of this picture. I was surprised when a DNA matched cousin sent me the full shot. Who is this woman and other girl in the picture?
I recognized the beautiful woman on the right as my great grandmother and the sad, but cute little girl on her lap is my Grandmother. The boy next to her is her brother, but who is this sweet looking baby? And why was she cut out of this picture?
I found out the baby is my Grandma’s next oldest sister, but what did she do to deserve being cut out of the family portrait? Turns out nothing. She was cut out for sitting on the nanny’s lap. Wait! But why is the nanny in this family portrait? Only time would tell.
If there was ever a woman who seemed to be a baby-making machine, it was my great grandmother. But women are not machines. Eventually something has to break. She endured sixteen pregnancies and twelve live births. She lost four children along the way. One little girl died after choking on popcorn fed to her by my Grandma—a story my mother had never heard. Long after all those babies were born this family would be rocked by scandal.
Great Grandfather was a famous astronomer. One of the best lens makers of his time. Revered and respected by the family, but apparently that’s not all he was capable of. He was such a kind and gentle man that many in the family would never believe it, but this nanny would come back years later and after she was married to have an affair with my great grandfather. It was shocking to hear, but there is a daughter to prove it. DNA doesn’t lie and neither do family pictures—if you have the complete frame.
This sweet looking baby was my grandmother’s closest sister—the one she wrote to, called, and spoke about the most. They were only two years apart and as adults, they lived on the same property, but for some reason, their children and now their grandchildren, barely knew each other.
The family tree gives us a wider perspective
If you’re looking up close at a broken branch, all you might see is the damage, while panning out allows us to see the beauty. Listening to stories beyond our immediate family can offer a new perspective on events, disputes, and personalities.
My mother didn’t tell me that her cousins lived nearby her while growing up. The cousins told me that my mother’s family kept to themselves. In defense of her parents, my mom told me they lived in a one room cabin with a curtain as a bathroom door. Okay, wait a minute. That sounds familiar. That sounds like my childhood. I was shocked that my mother has been on this earth for 85 years and never described her childhood to me. Maybe those cabins we lived in while I was a child were too close to the way she grew up.
What I’ve discovered is there are many secrets in the family tree—stories I would never have heard if I hadn’t gotten this DNA test and claimed some of the people referred to as my mother’s cousins for my own.
And it’s not just my mother’s side—I asked my dad once why we never saw my aunt again after his parents died. His answer was that his only sister was no longer in the family as far as he was concerned. While there were times she hurt my feelings as a child, and I didn’t always agree with her, she was still my aunt and I missed out on her perspective in my life.
My father eventually reconciled with his sister, but I never did. I never saw my aunt again after I was 24 and at the time, I was too biased by my father’s rejection of her to look beyond his point of view. It’s too late because now she’s gone.
Sadly, my brother has repeated this tradition of shunning into the next generation where two of his kids never speak to me when all I’ve ever done to them is bake cookies and give them gifts. This loss of connection goes beyond me to heavy criticism and years of rejection toward their mother. Supposedly it’s because she’s flawed and I supposedly took her side in the divorce—which isn’t true.
When kids grow up listening only to the perspective of one parent, they sometimes find out too late that there are many perspectives and sometimes even flawed people are worth knowing.
When children are expected to act as an extension of their parent’s animosity by rejecting the people their parents reject, it damages more than branches on the family tree—it damages lives. Such a lack of connection hurts people on all sides of the divide.
Also important to note: if you’ve been slandered by a narcissistic family member who’s spread lies about you, there’s likely more cousins in the family tree. The narcissistic members of your family can’t turn everyone against you.
The family tree shows us where we came from
While I was a child, we moved at least once a year. Growing up without a home base, wondering where to say I was from was difficult. As an adult, I continued moving from state to state, searching for home in my adult life, not realizing how I was repeating what had been modeled to me.
After studying the family tree, I found out that several generations of my father’s side are buried only six miles from where I live. My grandfather and great grandfather built houses here in Portland. Half of my family was born here. And yet, I have never called this home. I had feelings of home here, but I was still searching for where I was from. Now I know.
Chances are your mother or father didn’t tell you everything about your family. There’s more to learn from other people. Where did your great grandparents come from? Why do certain family members act in strange ways? What are the family secrets? Who stopped speaking to each other in former generations and why?
By the way, the family tree is important even if you were adopted. That just means you might have two family trees and even more stories. Blood isn’t all that counts—memories and relationships always matter. I have two cousins on both sides whose mothers were adopted—I cherish them as much as my DNA relatives. Family is family by blood or relationship. Everyone’s story matters!
The family tree reminds us of our own mortality
My 2x great grandparents have a poem on their grave that was common a couple of centuries ago. It reads—
All Nations, as you pass me by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me
It might seem morbid to consider our death, but it’s empowering to think about the legacy we want to leave. Will it be discord or hate for the people whose blood runs through our veins? Or will we plant love and kindness for future generations?
I’m an Amy Grant fan since 1982. She dropped a new song this week and it’s a beautiful reminder of why we all deserve and need to understand our family trees.
These stories in the family tree are not just for bragging rights about who served in which war or where our families came from or the scandals—these are true stories that will warm our souls and grow our hearts—if we’re willing to listen.
Little Red Survivor Tips is always free. It’s just my thoughts about surviving at the intersection of family, narcissistic and religious abuse, and current events.
I also wrote a book Chasing Eden, about my strange childhood.
If you’d like to discuss writing memoirs, reading them, or would like a sneak peek at my next book, To Uneat an Elephant, you can subscribe below.
Wow, absolutely fascinating, Cheri, and the song is beyond beautiful! It gives me chills!
Wow Cherilyn , this is such an important writing you shared. A must read! Thank you for sharing