A Family Theme

I’ve been thinking about family themes since reading an article called “A Family Theme, a Family Secret” by K.L.Cook that appeared in Glimmer Train in 2008.

Family themes. Family legacies. Family myths, stories and secrets. Hot topics for exploration in a memoir. Sometimes we get different messages from each side of the family.

I try to unravel the threads first from my mother’s side. Her legacies came to us over the years more by example than verbally.

1. Work hard
2. Take care of the men and children
3. Go to school: enjoy learning
4. Look on the bright side
5. Always offer a visitor a cup of tea
6. Listen to people and try to understand them
7. Act like a lady
8. Set a good example (for younger siblings, friends’ children, cousins)
9. Save your money in secure term investments

Like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”, in my mother’s family, “women were strong”, the men were good–looking, but mostly “dreamers” in some way. Women were the glue that kept the family together. Men tried, some harder than others, but often stumbled. Women kept going, supported each other, their children and their husbands; some, only until they no longer could, others for the duration.

“We were poor, but smart and good-looking” was another theme that we heard. The implication was that you could make something of your life in spite of your humble roots. No excuses were permitted. The riches of Canada could be yours if you worked hard. After all, wasn’t that why our ancestors left their homeland?

On Dad’s side the picture was dimmer. His parents remained in his village in Ukraine after he emigrated to Canada at the age of 16. He remembered his mother as “perfect” and his father an “autocrat” he hardly knew, and didn’t get along with. It was hard to detect a theme amongst the small number of cousins I met when growing up here in Ontario.

Dad’s family legacy is revealed in his advice to us:

1. Go to school. Get an education.
2. Work hard
3. Be loyal and take care of your family (including neighbours and people from your village)
4. Tell the truth, even if it hurts
5. You’ll have to live with the choices you make
6. Pick your friends carefully
7. Help your mother.
8. Exercise your freedom and vote. (or “wote” as he would say with his accent)
9. Drink in moderation
10. Shovel the walk
11. Plant a garden and fruit trees
12. Look after your roses
13. Don’t skimp on quality: shoes, clothes or furniture

These themes were the underpinnings of our lives when we were growing up and contributed to our values, emotional lives, dreams and anxieties. I’ll continue with this “theme” in the next post.

What were the predominant themes in your family?


Mary said...

I think it's interesting that you pronounced "wote" in your father's accent. You must have been hearing him in your head. It's a good way to remember the way they spoke those endearing (and not so endearing) homilies we live by.

Because we were lucky, the things that your parents (and mine) emphasized were spoken out of love - and there's another theme.


Ruth Zaryski Jackson said...

thanks for your comments, Mary. Yes, spoken out of love or fear for our safety. But that doesn't mean it didn't grate against our emerging selves as we tried to figure things out.