One of the main characters in my upcoming book is a woman who stands up for her granddaughter, and breaks every rule about how a grandmother should behave. Her personality is a hybrid of my father’s mother and step-mother, but there is a lot of “Shirley MacLaine chutzpa” in this character too. Honestly, she is my favorite character.
Recently, I had the fun opportunity to see Shirley MacLaine’s one woman show, and the pleasure to meet her backstage. My ultimate dream is that my book contract includes movie rights, Hollywood snatches it up, and Ms. MacLaine stars in the movie version! 🙂 (photo: Sadie and Shirley backstage. February 22, 2013 Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL)
So much of my book is about the search for self-identity through family and belief systems because I strongly believe that we carry our ancestor’s energy, yet so many of us do not know much about whom and where we come from.
When my father died 14 years ago, he left me his genealogical research which included rare photos and citizenship papers from the late 1800’s. The citizenship documents told of a whole group traveling to the U.S. together. In 1860, the only mode of transportation for that distance would have been boat. It was quite difficult to process paperwork then, sometimes taking years to get approval to visit another country. No airplanes, no computers, no cars, no washing machines, no supermarkets, no indoor plumbing, no toilet paper. Life was completely different, and families lived together much longer. My family purposely emigrated to Michigan, which at the time was a wooded, marshy, mosquito-filled area. Brave souls!
A dozen years ago I was looking through the old photographs and discovered writing on the back of one, indicating my grandmother as a child, in a local cemetery. The little bob-haired girl was standing next to a large monument bearing the family name. Chills went through me as I realized I had been driving past my family members for almost five years. I drove through the vast cemetery one day when the office was closed, yearning to find them, but after following all the curving roads my head started feeling topsy-turvy and I gave up the search. Weeks went by before I could try again. My stomach fluttered as I inquired about the family monument. When the woman behind the desk returned from the back room with an archival record, I was astounded to read that there were five relatives buried there, and another five empty graves. My heart was beating so wildly that I barely heard her explain to me that in the early 1900’s families bought burial plots of ten graves, but that by the 1950’s graves were purchased in groups of four and today they are sold in pairs.
Later, I felt a great emptiness on behalf of the shrinking family. Even in death, today’s families are scattered apart and disconnected. Today, it seems odd if a person lives at home with their parents past college age, yet 150 years ago society would have wondered at a family that did not live together until death.
Does anyone remember the PBS “reality show”Frontier House? It was a rare glimpse into pioneer life: three families lived for five months as their ancestors once had lived. If I remember correctly, Oprah also tried it out for a brief time, along with her best friend Gayle. It seems like the novelty of it all wore off pretty quickly, and the participants gained a deep appreciation for what our ancestors did on a daily basis.
Today’s family comes in many different forms than in days past, yet one thing remains constant—we all need to feel part of a loving tribe. It is where our belief system begins, where we develop a sense of honor, integrity and respect for our elders—and ourselves. We need to feel like we are part of something that matters.
There are those of us who don’t feel we belong to the family we grow up with, so we create a new family by seeking a supportive circle of friends. I have connected with a handful of lifelong friends who have more than made up for the disconnection I used to feel. I have also gained an appreciation for the family I was born into, because “not fitting in” has helped me become who I am today.
This is what I have tried to capture in my story, and I hope readers will find familiarity in the oddity, humor, heartbreak, and drama of the families in my book.
Parts of this blog post have been excerpted and updated from an article I published in a regional magazine in 2002.