Thursday, November 15. 2007
Went to a funeral today, in Independence KS for Yona Julian, 36, the daughter of a cousin. I was especially close to her father when we were growing up. He was (still is) seven years older than me, the closest person I ever had to a role model, although it seemed like he specialized in high standards I could never live up to -- one example is that he was an Eagle Scout, whereas I topped out at Life. He's the reason I grew up as a New York Yankees fan. But he also, no doubt inadvertently, taught me to hate tennis. I recall visiting him in the first few days after he moved to Independence, fresh out of college with a job teaching political science at the local juco. I figure five people (could be a couple more, certainly fewer than ten) of the 200 or so present today knew him then. Almost everyone else came as the result of the life he built there. He married a local girl, changed his religion, raised four children, finally retiring from the same job that brought him there. I moved away from Kansas, hardly ever saw him, barely know (or knew) his kids, least of all his eldest, Yona. She was a star athlete, stayed close to home, married a local boy, was diagnosed with cancer a few months after giving birth to her fourth child. She valiantly fought the cancer for 16 months.
All this happened slightly out of sight and reach. The rich set of interfamilial relationships of my mother's generation have split into separate cocooned nodes, a nuclearization explained or perhaps just excused by pressing time and divisive space. So I've been aware of Yona's ordeal from near the start, getting regular reports about someone familiar but barely known, me keeping what seemed to be a respectful distance. I guess the funeral today at last seemed like an opportunity for respectful presence. Still, I don't think I did any good except for the tiny number of people who knew me. I didn't talk to Yona's husband, but what could a stranger say? I could have mentioned that I was about his age when my wife died after a horrible protracted illness, but it's hard to say that the two cases offer any insight or comfort for each other. For one thing, with no children I felt strangely like my life was being restarted with a clean slate, whereas with four children he must feel completely different.
I just heard that another cousin suffered a stroke over a month ago. It was severe enough that she's still in a rehab hospital, and she and her husband will be moving into an assisted living facility when she gets back -- a move from Arizona to California that is dictated by another of those nuclear family nodes. My mother had seven siblings. All together they had 23 children. When my mother died in 2000 all 23 of her children, nieces and nephews were still known to be alive, with the oldest ones up around 75, and my immediate family by far the youngest. One is known to have died since then, but with my mother's generation gone we hear little of the far-flung cousins, let alone of their progeny, by now too numerous to keep track of. (I visited an aunt ten or more years ago. She assembled her whole clan to meet the nephew from Kansas, incomprehensible dozens of people, bragging that she had five generations present.)
I can't help but feel a sense that we've lost something here. Maybe you can chalk that up to jealousy -- that having no node of my own that I can look down on, I look up and around at others. But you lose something when you slough off cousins to focus on your own nuclear family. When I think of my 20 cousins I see a wide range of options and variations that are still rooted close enough to my life that I can relate to them, and that expand my understanding of who I am and where I come from. Those options and variations narrow considerably looking down. Maybe also the skills to deal with them. Jane Jacobs, in Dark Ages Ahead, saw the decay of family relationships as one sign of losing our ability to understand the world.