Since I’m spending this week with my daughter and three grandchildren to help out while my son-in-law is away, I’m reflecting on extended family relationships. It’s really important to me for my grandchildren to know me well; I want to have good relationships with them and I want them to like spending time with Dale and me. At least one reason I feel this way is because of how differently I experienced extended family as I was growing up.
My paternal grandparents, Jesse and Alice Steckley Sider, were married on December 28, 1910, in Wainfleet, Ontario, Canada. They had four children: Lewis (my dad), Grace, Murray and Elmer. In 1920, during a flu epidemic and following the death of their fifth child, my grandmother died. My dad was eight years old; the others were even younger. My grandfather remarried within about a year, at least in part because he needed someone to be a mother to his children. My father left home and came to the U.S. when he was 18 and never returned to Canada to live. His father (my grandfather) died in 1948, two months after I was born. Obviously, I never knew him. His wife (my step-grandmother) lived until 1969, so I knew her and I remember visiting in her home in Ontario, Canada. She never traveled to visit us after we settled in Pennsylvania, however, and we never visited her for any extended period of time. I don’t have particularly pleasant memories of her and I never felt like I knew her well; she was “odd,” not very warm, and she lived in a house that felt creepy. It also seemed like there wasn’t anything interesting to do when we went there and she didn’t really know how to interact with kids.
My maternal grandparents, Walter and Martha Book Bohen, were married on December 20, 1908 in Kansas. They had six children: Gladys (my mother), Elizabeth, Evan, Harriet, Naomi and Mary. When my mother was 12, the family moved to California in part for my grandmother’s health – she had suffered from tuberculosis. My grandfather died in 1950, when I was two. I never knew him either. For the whole time I knew Grandma Bohen (except for the last period of her life when she was in a nursing home), she lived with my Aunt Mary in central Pennsylvania. After we returned from Africa, and while she was still physically able, she would periodically spend a week with my mother at our house. She was the one who gave New Testaments to each of her grandchildren when they turned six, and she also made a quilt for each of us which is on the bed my granddaughter Alecia sleeps in when she comes to visit. My grandmother passed her needlework skills to my mother, who in turn passed some of them on to me. She died in 1981 at the age of 93.
My aunts and uncles and cousins have always been scattered across two countries – the U.S and Canada. I remember only one time when my entire maternal extended family was together, and that was for Christmas in 1954 when my family was in the U.S. on furlough from Africa. The extended Walter Bohen family also had a reunion in Kansas in the 1990s, but I was not able to attend. Three of my mother’s sisters (Harriet, Naomi and Mary) are still living; they are all in their 90s. I have no memory of my paternal extended family ever being all together, although that may have happened during that 1954-1955 furlough as well. My father’s siblings have all passed away. Some of my first cousins on both sides are practically strangers to me, although I’ve connected to several on Facebook in recent years.
So what’s the point of this family history lesson? I think it’s a way of providing context for my life and perhaps mitigating a bit against that sense of rootlessness I grew up with, having moved around so much. It also illustrates how even though I know my family history fairly well, I didn’t always know actual family members very well, something I lament now more than I used to. I especially lament not having had the kind of relationship with my grandparents that I now have with my own grandchildren.
Before I became a grandparent, I never understood why friends and acquaintances seemed so obsessed with their grandchildren. But the moment I laid eyes on my first granddaughter Alecia ten years ago a few hours after she was born, I understood. I was definitely smitten by that tiny little person who represented the next generation of our family. We didn’t make it to the hospital in time for me to be in the delivery room when she was born, but we did make it just in time for her brother Justis’ birth three and half years later. Again, I was smitten. And I had the same feeling last April, the day before my own birthday, when their little sister Selena was born. We didn’t make it in time for her birth, but saw her soon after. It was such fun being able to watch through the window while she was being given her first bath in the nursery at the hospital.
When I look at my grandchildren, I certainly see their father (my son-in-law, someone with his own family history) in them. But I also see myself and my daughter (their mother) and my family in them. Seeing the family resemblance from generation to generation is somehow reassuring, and makes me want my grandchildren not only to know and love me and their grandpa but also to know about the families from which they are descended.