March of the Generations

Whenever I’m at a family event – especially a wedding, christening, or funeral – I find myself recapturing a feeling that things are right and proper. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the event is a happy one or a sad one; it’s the fact that family members are together and we’re re-affirming our connection over time and distance.

I’ve come to refer to this feeling as my sense of “the march of the generations.” When I wrote out my personal mission and values for my Franklin Day Planner some years ago, this sense made it to the top of my list of values. I realized at some point that I was looking for meaning in life. From the existential philosophers to well-known psychology writers like Viktor Frankl and Irwin Yalom, this challenge, of finding meaning in a life that is ultimately too short, has been the focus of a lot of deep thought.

My own sense of peace and rightness at these events has come from the feeling that the continuity of our lives depends on others. Logically, this means our family tree – at least to begin with. The popularity of genealogy and family history has never been greater than it is now (with the Internet providing great tools to indulge these explorations). But in an increasingly mobile and fragmented society, with the harsh feelings and divisiveness that our current cultural and ideological differences can bring, it’s good to pause and remember that we are all connected.

Today I ran across an essay written by a descendant of Appalachian farmers, who reflected on the Southern roots of their family. It was posted in a liberal website, so it had a faintly apologetic tone (which was probably to be expected, given our recent election and the toxic perceptions it generated). But it reminded me of the reasons I used to love reading the Foxfire books (which were written in the 1970’s as an ongoing school project in Appalachia, in which the teacher asked his students to interview and photograph their older relatives and learn about their history, culture, and communities). It also reminds me of the reasons I enjoy old-time music so much, and love to look up the origins of tunes like “Big Scioty.”

When I capture this sense of “the march of the generations,” I find myself thinking that jobs come and go. Homes may burn down, or fall down, or blow down, or be razed for a highway expansion. Cars are even less permanent, like the blink of an eye. But children, parents, grandparents, nieces and nephews, and good lifelong friends, provide the threads of the fabric that weaves us all together. Our cousins from Dubuque have, at various times, worked at “The Pack,” at John Deere, or as teachers. They were never defined by their jobs or careers. They were defined by their belonging to something larger than themselves: a family. So whether we meet at the funeral of a well-loved great-aunt or the christening of a new set of twins, we know we belong.

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