Treasures Lost and Found: Family Closeness

Like branches on a tree we grow in different directions, yet our roots remain as one. Each of our lives will always be a special part of the other. ~ Unknown

My cousin passed away much too soon. Though the faith we shared assures me she is in a better place and is reunited with her precious son, whose death at twenty-one was an unimaginable tragedy, still she was not old enough for us to let go easily. A few months ago, after returning home from her service at the tiny country church where our fathers and their six siblings worshipped as children, there was a thought I couldn’t shake.

My cousin’s father and his siblings grew up very poor in the Virginia countryside. My grandmother made all of their soap; their water came from a creek that meandered by their house; and that creek was their refrigerator – they had a watertight box they lowered into it to keep eggs, milk and other food cold. My grandfather died when my father was seven and there was barely enough money to keep the children together. In fact, there was talk of sending the youngest siblings to live with relatives and friends because there wasn’t enough money to support so many.

The older sisters insisted that they could care for the younger ones and kept the family together. Whenever anyone worked for pay, the money was pooled to buy the basics, mainly food. All of the kids worked on the family’s leased tobacco farm before and after school – picking the bugs off of the plants; “hilling” or preparing small hills for the young plants; “topping” and removing suckers; harvesting; and many, many more tedious chores. My grandmother was a teacher and believed that education was the path to success in life. An amazing amount of schooling was completed by those farm kids – college and graduate degrees – mostly paid for by my uncle, the oldest brother, who used the first profits from his little company, the Georgia Hardwood Lumber Company, to pay for educating his younger brothers. My father was one of those lucky brothers.

Besides their tremendous success in building their lumber company into the giant Georgia-Pacific Corporation, every one of those eight siblings grew into strong, positive, remarkable individuals. And just as importantly, they remained extremely close throughout their lives. In his later years my father called each of his sisters every day. The closeness of my aunts and uncles was evident in many of the words delivered by my cousin’s loved ones at her service. That group of siblings was often referred to as “the eight apostles.” All of us in successive generations know of their strength and closeness. During the service, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a treasure they had in their family cohesiveness, and the fact that those of us living now, their descendants, once knew it through them. But we no longer have it, not as they did.

We know each other and we get along, but I can’t help but wonder if the financial wealth that came with the success of Georgia-Pacific paved the way for us into a world where we are not dependent on each other, and where something precious in that interdependence has been lost. I wonder if it is not possible to have both financial ease and interdependence in the best sense of the word.

To be clear, it is not simply the impoverished circumstances of the “eight apostles” that created the closeness I witnessed. It was also one of my grandparents’ priorities to raise their children to be close. There were surely many crossroads, challenges and consistent parenting for the support and strength I saw to have developed. This was a faith-based, Christian family and undoubtedly their spiritual upbringing played an important role.

But my question remains: is it possible to foster this kind of strength and closeness in a family where there is financial wealth and ease?

I believe this can only happen far outside the mainstream. It is the values, priorities and actions of the parents and what they exemplify, that determine the kinds of relationships that are possible in their family. It is entirely possible to train children to love and prioritize each other; to respect, cherish and depend on each other in the positive ways; and to feel interconnected in the way that I experienced among my father and his siblings. It is just so rarely practiced that it is almost impossible to find among families today. The forces of society in general and the forces of financial wealth clearly work against it. But occasionally I see a rare example, and I aspire to it with my husband and children.

Shared values in the family encouraged by regular times when the family is together, shared spiritual practice, even humor and play, all contribute to weaving the family together. You can have this in your family. It begins with the awareness; the strength and conviction to stand up for what you believe in always; prioritizing family members’ relationships; and then the relentless commitment to the practice.

I shared this story with my wise and dear colleague, Richard Bakal, who is gifted in seeing the big picture, and he listed the circumstances he sees here which brought about such an extraordinary result. I find his list, in summary, to be very thought provoking:

Living in near poverty, close enough to real poverty, so it is clear that only continuous hard work and cooperation will keep the family alive and together.

* A rural environment, and dealing with nature’s forces teaches vital lessons. Life in a city/urban environment is full of diversions, temptations and very bad examples.

* A large family with lots of children. This may be key! In such a family, the mother cannot possibly care for all of the children, which the older children recognize and thus help take care of the younger ones. This kind of care giving and care receiving naturally creates the closeness that you remember and strongly desire.

* The death of their father intensified the bonds between the children. There was talk of sending the younger children away, but the older sisters would not allow for this. How could they?

* The very strong emphasis on education, for all the children – girls as well as boys, younger ones as well as older ones.

* The family was strongly faith-based and this undoubtedly sustained it and its members.

I don’t think, unfortunately, that “it is possible to foster this kind of strength and closeness in a family where there is financial wealth and ease” unless there is extraordinary awareness, discipline, and delayed satisfaction from the founders/parents. Adherence to as many as possible of the circumstances I listed is also important.


© 2014 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.

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