Family of Origin

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jan 4, 2013

Like many in our community, I am closer to my "family of choice" than I am to my "family of origin." But in recent years - thanks in large part to Facebook - I have gotten somewhat reacquainted with cousins and siblings I have not seen in over three (sometimes four) decades.

It seems, for example, that I have a plethora of nieces and nephews in addition to my little brother's two kids, Mijo and Marya, the latter born not quite a year ago. (Akuema, my brother, never fails to remind me that I have yet to meet the newest addition; "When are you getting yourself home to New Mexico?" he demands. I'm coming, bro, I'll be there at some point in the middle of this year.)

Akuema, of course, is another of my chosen kin. It amuses and perplexes me that people make a distinction between him - my adopted brother - and Gavin, my baby brother. "Wait," they'll say, when I share some anecdote about one or the other of my fraternal siblings. "Is this the one who's really your brother?"

Well, gosh. They're both really my brothers. And if distinctions of DNA are so important, then why does no one fret over the face that Gavin is actually, in genetic terms, my half-brother?

It's not that I don't get it. I understand, sort of, why this distinction that I never make is, to many people, terribly important. "Blood is thicker than water," the saying tells us. But it's been a long time since I felt any kind of consanguineous tug. I have to remind myself that most people experience a deep and innate connection to those to whom they are related by an accident of birth, a connection enhanced by years and years of shared experience and sedimentary layers of common memory. Most people actually know the others in their biological families. Most people come from families that, in all likelihood, didn't fly to flinders quite as thoroughly and spectacularly as mine did.

As this new year dawned, however, I got a dose of that long-forgotten sense of blood ties from a set of old family photos that a cousin had posted at Facebook. Picking through this online photo album, I felt a sense of almost creepy recognition, something between nostalgia and surprise, as I recognized faces long unseen. People I'd completely forgotten about suddenly entered my thoughts anew; people I'd never met, but only heard of, took on substance as I examined pictures of them that I had never seen before.

My father and his brothers and sisters all standing in a group, in the early 1950s... kids themselves. Then, ten or fifteen years later, grouped once again with their parents in a color photo taken shortly before my paternal grandfather died. My aunts were lovely young women; my uncles were impossibly young. One of them, I was shocked to see, was actually pretty hot stuff - he was, in fact, movie-star handsome, and he knew how to dress the part. His clothing and his posture also matched the persona of a good-looking guy from that era, but he'd just as easily fit into today's world. If I saw him on the street today, I'd look twice. It's more than a little strange to have a reaction of aesthetic appreciation for a man now in his 70s, a man you know in your mind is your father's brother.

Strangest of all, exerting the most powerful grasp over my imagination, is a photo from 1938 of my paternal grandfather. The image is blurry but if I didn't know for a fact that it was he, I might have mistaken him for me: Even blurred and indistinct, he has a very similar cast of face and bearing. He's also wearing a whopping great cowboy hat and a pair of six-shooters, not to mention overlapping ammo belts strapped to his waist in a bullet-studded X.

"Just look at that six-gun toting son of a bitch!" I exclaimed to my husband.

He squinted at the computer screen. "Is that you?"

"That is my grandpa," I said, surprised to hear a note of pride and excitement in my own voice.

"Is that New Mexico?"

"This was taken in New Mexico in 1938," I confirmed.

"It looks like New Mexico." My husband studied the image a bit longer. "It looks like you - if you were dressing up and playing cowboy."

I've never been into genealogy, and I have always scoffed at the family lore that claims Sacajawea as an ancestor and boasts that a town in Wyoming was named after a great-great uncle. But something in my blood and bones stirred to see that old photo; something took notice at how I turn out to be an echo of a man I never knew, a man who died before I was born.

For these past few decades, I've assumed I was sui generis, more the product of the influences I have sought out and the people I've adopted as family than the result of my DNA. I've taken pride in the differences that define me and distinguish me from my forebears; I'm one of the first in my family to go to college (the movie star uncle beat me to it a generation ago, but he was a true outlier on our family tree), I'm conscious and careful about drinking (having seen what alcohol did to my immediate family), I've even done the unthinkable and subjected myself to a few years of psychotherapy, all in order to transcend... or escape... what I saw as a legacy of nothing more than domestic violence and an itinerant lifestyle marked by marital infidelity and borderline poverty.

Now I see there's more to the picture... literally. I'm part of something deep and broad and far-reaching. I might be on the very fringes of the thing, but it's never relinquished me; I partake in other spheres and lineages, but I also stem from this one, this tumultuous family tree that has spawned sharecroppers and novelists and everything in between. Somehow, I brought a sepia-tinged notion of who these people were with me on this long journey through the years, and now - with this blurry vintage photograph - something has come sharply and marvelously into focus.

I belong to these people, too. It's okay - holy crow, my gods, would you look at that -- it's okay to embrace and admire and take pride in them. I will never be parted from my family of choice, but it feels like I've rejoined my family of origin.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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