When my younger stepdaughter and my daughter were both in third grade, they had a class assignment to draw family trees. My stepdaughter’s tree was a small one, including only her mother, her father, her sister, and her brother. My daughter’s tree was more like a fat Christmas spruce with an over-abundance of ornaments. She included her father, me, her brother, her stepdad, her stepsisters and stepbrother, their stepbrothers and stepsister on their mother’s side, our cat, and her stepsister’s stepdad’s dog.
Deciding who is entitled to perch on a branch of your family tree isn’t always a simple thing. In our family, now that those earnest third-graders and their siblings are adults with kids of their own, it hasn’t become any simpler. We just keep adding inlaws, grandkids, cousins, and significant others. (Does anybody have “insignificant others,” do you suppose? I hope not.) Enough of these extended family members are step-whomevers so that most of the time it’s easier to drop the “step” part and just think of them as what they are: family.
And it doesn’t stop there. My partner’s mother, for instance, who died recently at age 96, had only a small family of her own. But in the last years of her life, the definition of “family” in her life changed. A woman who originally helped her with house cleaning and errands, then took on more and more care of her as her health declined, eventually became a close and loving adopted daughter. She didn’t come alone, either. She brought her children and grandchildren, and all of them blessed a rather solitary woman’s house and life with people, activity, and lots of love. If that doesn’t qualify as “family,” I don’t know what does. Branches are branches, even when they have been grafted onto the family tree.
All those branches, of course, have to be supported by roots. To some extent, we define our families by where we came from. In my case, one grandmother immigrated from Germany and the other’s parents were both born in Norway. My grandfathers, whose ancestors came to this country much earlier, aren’t quite as easy to categorize.
But we’re about to find out more. We’re participating in the National Geographic Genographic Project. By testing DNA samples, it can tell us more about where our ancestors came from, where in the world they went across the generations, and what racial mix we are. It can even reveal whether we have Neanderthal ancestry. Who wouldn’t want to know that?
It will take a while to get the results, but there’s one thing I already know. This knowledge is going to expand the roots that support our family trees. A good thing, too. At the rate we keep adding branches, we need the broadest root system we can find. Neanderthals and all.