Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ellis Island

Today, Ellis in the highchair, eating his cheerios. Dave and I drinking coffee. Dave is sketching out his family tree. He is looking back, trying to find the source of the sadness he sees in many of his family members. He writes notes next to each person; little haiku's that sum up the lives of each family member. "Divorced. Sad. Drinks."

He puts a smiley face next to Ellis' name.

Ellis babbles and eats unaware of his loaded lineage. Between Dave and I's family there are a lot of powerful narratives that each new generation hears and retells. These stories define how we think of ourselves. They define us in ways we don't realize.

Dave is looking back and looking forward. As parents, we can chose new ways forward. We don't have to repeat the patterns. But it requires consciousness of those patterns. It requires that we sketch out our family trees on Saturday mornings, and look for the codes, the repetition, the continuation of behaviors from generation to generation. And then it requires that we change course. Deliberately. This is harder than it sounds.

My great grandmother came through Ellis island in 1913. She was pregnant on the boat, miscarried soon after arriving. After that she gave birth to two stillborn children in the space of three years. The light went out of her. She was a hard woman to live with, my grandmother told me, she lost her ability to love. This affected my grandmother, and in turn affected my mother.

My grandmother's first child died in her arms at five months, because my grandfather refused to take the baby to the doctor. The impact this had on my grandmother and grandfather's marriage, affected my mother, and in turn affected me.

My mother's father died when I was six weeks old. The shock of this dried up my mother's breast milk and I screamed for days, my wailing the soundtrack to those first days she lived without her father on the planet. And then my pregnancy in the wake of my mother's death. One heart stops beating and one starts. What do I do with all of this death at the moment of birth, birth at the moment of death?

These stories seep into our skin, permeate our view of the world. We wonder why we feel sad for no particular reason, and then remember, we are carrying the sadness of the people who came before us.

The choices of my grandmothers have affected my trajectory, and now Ellis'. My grandmother herding three children through Ellis Island, ultimately resulted in Ellis. He is a combination and culmination of all of our choices, and all of the things out of our control.

When we were children, we were passive recipients of our reality. Now as parents, we are the deciders. We get to decide bedtimes, activities, which religion to endorse, what to make for dinner, the politics we preach.

I always told my mother that she did the work of many generations in moving us forward. She drastically changed our course. She ran away from home to go to college. She shook off the conservative religion she was given. She rejected her family's belief that women were inherently inferior. She moved away. She moved abroad. She broke all the rules.

The miles she traveled outside of her comfort zone, and the battles she fought against limiting ideas are the gifts she gave Ellis on the day of his birth.

Today the weather is finally warmer. Its been a long winter. We need Spring badly. I can't wait to take a walk around the frozen lake today. There are many things I want to teach Ellis, many things I want to tell him, the good stories and the bad stories, the folly of his ancestors, the wisdom of my mother.

Today's lesson: When the sun is shining, go outside.


  1. Beautiful lesson!
    I'm going to go listen to your advice now ...
    Much Peace.

  2. Bree,
    This is a very similar conversation that Ian and I have had recently We went through my grandmothers side of the family. My grandmother had 7 siblings.....Her mother and father and oldest sister entered as well through Ellis Island. Husbands died young - sons never left their parents house - divorces - secret children - and lots of OCD/hoarding - all under the rule of very dominant women. We tried to dissect where and what went wrong. Luckily my grandmother was different. She use to say that she loved her siblings but didnt like them. I think that is a brave statement especially for a Catholic Italian. She lived in other neighborhoods and did her own thing...she DID NOT marry an Italian. She stayed married and so did all her children. Her sisters use to call her a "show off". She was a wise lady. I miss her terribly. There IS loads of tension between my mom and her siblings for what ever reason...but what family is perfect? We are in this unique position to guide and mold our children....I look at Emmett sometimes and think, "he's never going to remember this day" but at the same time, its the important formative time in his lives. I truly believe children choose there parents. And Ellis had chosen you and Dave to care for him inside and out....i think its takes a life time to figure out why.