Kinship, past and present

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The heavy heat of the night combined with sporadic coughing from the tail end of a summer cold makes it difficult to sleep. I lean against propped pillows and resign myself to fitful dosing. Slipping into a quiet stoic mood, I rest my interlaced fingers against my stomach and, as if of their own accord, my thumbs begin twiddling. How like my father! I remember him at the end of a long workday, sloped against the burnt orange Naugahyde cushions of our Scandinavian teak chair, fingers interlaced, the thumbs slowly swivelling one against the other.

When I was young, I didn’t pay much attention to my genetic kinship. I had my father’s dark brown eyes, and my mother’s long fingers; I preferred being alone, like Dad, and felt compelled to please people, like Mom. That was about it. Now, well into my 60s, my now-departed kin make themselves visible in behaviour as well as looks. “Good!” I reply to a friend, as we agree on a lunch venue, and vividly, I hear my mother in both word and cadence. “Good!” she would always say in a firm, happy and ‘that’s settled’ tone; a plan confirmed, a date arranged. Over the last few years, my hair has turned almost completely white, and I can see my Dad’s sister, snowy-haired Tante Benine, reaching up through my hands to pat the hair in place.

And this weekend, a visit from my niece Jessica, her husband Mike and their gorgeous 8-month-old twin daughters, Annabelle and Jasmine. When I welcomed my niece, my hand reached out and gently stroked her cheek in one of my mother’s trademark gestures. Seated on a blanket made by my sister Patricia (Jessica’s mother, still very much alive), the babies kick their legs and pump their arms. They stare unabashedly at their kinfolk, faces crinkling into exuberant wide-mouthed laughs. Their slate blue eyes haven’t yet revealed which genetic pathway they’ll follow: brown like their Mom’s or hazel like their Dad’s. Like all babies, they are adorable beyond words, and we adults grin helplessly as we watch them cavort. The spirit of my dead parents hovers in the room, and I can feel the smiles of generations beaming through our own. Like Wendell Berry, “I tremble with gratitude”, celebrating another link of kinship and wonder.

2005 (VII)

I tremble with gratitude
for my children and their children
who take pleasure in one another.

At our dinners together, the dead
enter and pass among us
in living love and in memory.

And so the young are taught.

~ Wendell Berry



  1. Batia

    June 30, 2018

    A lovely reflection. Thanks, Mary Lou.

  2. Janice Falls

    July 1, 2018

    How touching Mary Lou. This causes me to reflect on my own family especially now that both parents and all of that generation are no longer living – what gestures, tones, behaviours of mine are shaped by my ancestors?
    In living love and memory, such a beautiful way we carry on.
    Hope you cold is erased in this heat!! love Jan

  3. Mary Lou van Schaik

    July 4, 2018

    Such a good question, Jan…. I imagine our ancestors asking the same thing themselves….I hope you’re cooling off in a river nearby!

  4. Maureen McGahey

    July 15, 2018

    I am writing good ol Wendell in my journal now.

    Yes oh how this triggers memories especially of chaos at mealtime in my large family of origin.

    I must say this one to my mom as you know suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. And my Mom’s antics during family meals while we grew up is quite a memory that always left me feeling disappointed…. and really sad.
    However there are also happier memories too!

    And as I sit under a tree on this astoundingly HOT day near Silver Lake we are now talking about mealtimes at Dave’s parents farm. I never tasted food so good—all from the massive garden was always being weeded lovingly by Helena who not only prepared an incredible meal but would also harvest and freeze beans, carrots and I can see the counter full of cucumber, corn relishes, pickled beets ,
    Dill pickles, icicle pickles and chili sauce….. oh and the pies….
    If hospitality was measured by nourishment Helena was the queen. Her real gift was as nourisher by the way she deeply listened to every person seated at her table. Oh my I miss her and Dave’s dad Renold who used to laugh so hard at the end of his jokes that I rarely heard the punch lines…

    And I often miss them most when their children laugh in unison— a Irish caucophony— like I have never heard quite the same way in any other family…. and this sound is now part of the next generation’s laughter too!

    Oh thanks for these sweet reminders of the ancestors and their presence at our family gatherings…@ a cellular level.


  5. Mary Lou van Schaik

    July 18, 2018

    Dear Maureen — what a wonderful memory you’ve shared! It makes me remember the bountiful garden harvest that fed us when we lived on the farm. And I love the sweet and poignant tribute to your inlaws. Thank you! Love – ML

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