Genesis tells us about the first family.
Adam was alone, it says, and God saw that it wasn’t good for him. So God created Eve to help him and be his companion.
That was good. In theory.
But Adam and Eve forfeited their bliss in exchange for pain, futility and ceaseless toil.
By the second generation, their children had descended into fratricide. Jealous Cain slew his brother, Abel.
In the hundreds or thousands of generations that have followed, families have proved to be a mixed blessing, to put it optimistically.
Most marriages don’t start in Eden or end up in exile from God, and most sibling rivalries don’t result in murder, but most new families start off with a wedding and the highest hopes, only to eventually be sideswiped by disappointments, varying degrees of dysfunction and, at last, death.
Families give us life. They feed us. Protect us. Teach us. Often they love us.
They also hurt us. Stifle us. Irritate us. Warp us. Reject us.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these mysteries.
For the umpteenth time, I’ve undertaken to pull together the genealogy and inherited stories of my own family. I hope to compile this into a privately published book that I can pass down to my grandchildren, so they’ll know who they are and where they came from, if they ever care to read it.
I’ve started this project several times, and I always have lost focus before I finished. Maybe this time I’ll get it done. My research is all but finished, and I’m 40 pages into the writing of the book.
Here’s hoping. Fingers crossed.
My early American ancestors traveled in groups of family. To Maryland from Virginia. Much later, to Central Kentucky. From Central Kentucky to the wilderness of Pulaski County.
They journeyed together and settled near each other for both camaraderie and protection, I’d imagine.
But there are darker branches in our tree. In 1823, one of the early Pulaski County settlers, Edward Prather, legally emancipated his underage fifth child, William. Edward’s legal document doesn’t say why he did this. Maybe there was a benign explanation. But in our times, at least, this is often a sign of an irretrievably broken relationship between parent and child.
My great-grandfather, Robert Prather, died suddenly in 1900 of an intestinal illness. My grandfather was 5. He, his siblings and his mother were plunged into terrible poverty.
Papa had to leave school by sixth grade to work full-time, just to survive. His mother, my great-grandmother, allegedly turned to prostitution to feed herself and her kids.
Papa became a good and kind man, but a poor and barely literate one. He carried the scars and resentments of this all his long life.
Married young, he lived in the shadow of his father-in-law, a religious self-made farmer who — according to Papa’s memory — considered Papa beneath him.
Papa’s bride, my grandmother, remembered her father much differently. On her deathbed, she wrote this reminiscence of him from her childhood:
“We always seemed to have a cold house in the winter with a big log fireplace, and he and the boys kept plenty of wood to burn. … I remember how he would warm mother’s shoes in the mornings and put a shawl around her shoulders and then be sure the old wood-burning cookstove was good and hot before he would let her get up and go into that cold kitchen. Then he would get us kids up one by one and take us in his lap and dress us in our outing petticoats and long dresses and wool stockings and get us ready for breakfast.”
The man she describes doesn’t sound like a dismissive zealot, but Granny turned out to be as much of a hellfire-and-brimstone Christian as her father supposedly was.
Her zeal motivated both her sons to become preachers — and she ran off her three daughters, who scattered to northern Ohio and California.
My dad worshiped Granny as much as she’d worshiped her father. My aunts had almost nothing good to say about her.
Which brings us to that greatest of family mysteries: What is truth? The same parent appears as a fortress to one child, a villain to another.
Brothers brawl and blame each other for the mayhem.
A young widow turns to prostitution. Is she a victim or a disgrace?
Truly, only God knows.
When we’re dealing with our family, it’s hard to ever draw a bead on who they really are. They’re so close we can’t focus on them clearly, and they’re so far away we might mistake them for someone else.
It’s possible to regard them far too kindly, to ignore even reprehensible faults and create of them alabaster saints fit only to stand on the shelf of some backroom shrine.
Even worse, though, it’s easy to remember them only for their failures and sins.
As many people have observed, it’s the people we love best who grieve us most.
But we ought to reserve a measure of grace even for our kin. Especially for our kin.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.