After a long holiday weekend spent with extended family, I am moved to reflect on kinship. I am a branch in a family tree that has roots in Italy and in Germany, Bohemia, Ireland and England. My ancestors are always with me: in specific memories, in personality traits, in my heart. I have a place with photographs of them which I greet daily, smiling at the stories behind the pictures.
Stories tell us who we are and where we’ve come from. My father’s father came over alone on the boat from Italy when he was fourteen, just a year older than my son is now. He lived in Chicago Heights, a town south of the infamous Southside of Chicago, and worked at Calumet Steel to provide for his family.
My father’s mother had three sisters and two brothers, and everyone lived nearby to help each other through life’s ups and downs. One of her brothers grew up to play the accordion and was a bandleader in Chicago clubs during the Big Band era. Another brother had sketchy ties to the mob, small-time stuff like dog racing and gambling. She herself was an inspired and generous cook, and many of her recipes, including ravioli and her spaghetti sauce with meatballs, are staples in households of cousins and grandchildren.
My mother’s parents were from more affluent families, living in places like Oak Park and River Forest, posh suburbs on the west side of Chicago. Their family histories had a bit more intrigue, including a mother who ran off with a younger man. My grandmother’s handwritten memoir included a telling detail about her courtship with my grandfather. Once they were married, he refused to play tennis with her anymore, because he didn’t want her to drag down his game. She was a talented artist and her paintings grace many homes, including mine.
We all have stories like this, unique and funny, tragic and heartbreaking, inspiring or baffling. It’s a multi-generational matrix of births, marriages, travel, education, wars, careers, unemployment, moves, hardship, friendship, illness, death, ceremonies, and favorite recipes. Our stories embed us firmly in the world of men and women, of human history, culture and civilization.
There’s a whole other world of kinship that most of us do not see, and that is our relationship with the rest of Life. The Lakota call it “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which is usually translated as “All My Relations.” This is a prayer of connection, to acknowledge and celebrate our kinship with all of creation, a very different kind of story than we modern Westerners tell.
“In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animal; for Tuawa, the One Above, did not speak directly to man. He sent Animals to tell man that he showed himself through the beasts. And that from them, and from the stars and the sun and the moon, man should learn. For all things speak of Tuawa.”
~ Chief Letakos-Lesa of the Pawnee Tribe
Once we acknowledge this kinship, it opens up a whole world of appreciation. My own body is of the earth; every molecule and mineral is from the soil and rain and sunlight, converted from the food I eat. As we give thanks for the bounty on our tables and for the health of our families, let’s take a moment to expand that blessing, that gratitude, to the living earth and All Our Relations, to wish them well and thank them for their presence, their beauty, their steadfastness and generosity.
Let my words
be bright with animals,
images the flash of a gull’s wing.
If we pretend
that we are at the center,
that moles and kingfishers,
eels and coyotes
are at the edge of grace,
then we circle, dead moons
about a cold sun.
This morning I ask only
the blessing of the crayfish,
the beatitude of the birds;
to wear the skin of the bear
in my songs;
to work like a man with my hands.