My research on genealogy and family history has shifted gears, that being the proper metaphor to describe my recent family road trip.
The traveling party included my parents, my second oldest brother and myself; although my brother only came for the first half of the trip. It was a long trip, but I didn’t mind too much. I get along well enough with my parents and it was nice to spend some quality time with my brother who, these days, is usually busy with his own family.
It was a trip with family and largely about family. There was much discussion. I prodded my parents with many questions and took extensive notes. My motivation to learn about my extended family is that I didn’t grow up around them nor did I ever see most of them on a regular basis. They are strangers to me, strangers because of distance and time. Some of them, specifically three of my grandparents, were dead before I had become an adult.
I grew up feeling detached from family. As I wasn’t raised with extended family, I wasn’t raised with the belief being overtly instilled in me that there was much value to extended family, my own parents willingly having left their families behind other than for brief visits. There was never a sense of closeness. No big family reunions and holidays. No grandmother next door, no cousins in the neighborhood, not even distant relations in nearby towns.
My parents didn’t consciously choose this, but on some level I’m sure they understood the choice they were making for their children. They had conflict-ridden or even distant relationships with their own family, especially their parents, and so they did the opposite of prioritizing extended family. Career always came first, a choice that was easily rationalized out of a sense of parental responsibility and duty to self-development. This just makes my parents normal according to the standards of modern American society.
My parents have always wanted normalcy or a close approximation to it. They grew up with the nuclear family fantasy of those early black and white tv sitcoms. That is what they internalized and then modeled in their own adult lives. They just wanted to be good people, responsible adults, dutiful parents. It was a role that society told them to play and they played it well. I make these observations with deep empathy for I understand the pull of wanting to fit in and be accepted, to be perceived as a worthy human being and a valued member of society. It just so happens to be a role I’m not very good at playing. If not for depression, I very well might have followed right along with a career, house, wife and 2.5 kids.
The destination for the road trip was California. It was a journey that followed in the footsteps of family members before me, some of the family I never knew or barely knew. California is a state that for some reason was where several lines of my family ended up in or passed through, not unlike many other Americans. California, the land of new beginnings, the birthplace of the suburban dream.
While in California, my mom visited a cousin she hadn’t seen since childhood and I visited a cousin I hadn’t seen since childhood, two reunions from each side of the family. Along the way, we stopped in a town where my dad recalled visiting a great uncle (where a great aunt also lived nearby) and we stopped in another town where he once visited his mother after his parents divorced.
All of them had their reasons for leaving their families behind. My mom’s cousins ended up there either because their father was escaping debts or because it was suggested that a change in climate would be beneficial for some illness in the family. My dad’s mom simply went for the supposed perfect climate of the bay area, illness not being the motivating factor. My cousin has been there because he has a good job in Silicon Valley. My dad’s great uncle and great aunt moved there for reasons unknown.
California is a place that hasn’t held any personal significance, but this trip has changed that. Starting in the most southern area and heading up just past the Bay area, I was able to get a glimpse of what life is like there — the geography and history, the culture and ethnicities, the settlement patterns and imperial remnants. No doubt it is very much symbolic of America and the American Dream. A society on the move. A people of progress. Keep going West until you can’t go any further. Then what?