Last spring, my Uncle Joe gave me a call. It was a pleasant surprise. Because I hadn’t heard from him in a very long time. Because he was my mom’s little brother. Because he was the last little bit of my mother that I had left.
We talked about an hour, catching up, about my cousins, about my kids. Then he told me the reason for his call. He had recently retired and was now working on a family tree. He needed details, like the correct spelling of names and birthdates.
He mentioned relatives I’ve been wondering about for years, a second cousin whom I haven’t seen since her wedding shower decades ago. He gave me her phone number and email address.
After that conversation, my uncle and I connected via email from time to time. Sometimes I got a card in the mail, or I would send him one. In the fall, a thick brown envelope came in the mail. My name and address was written matter-of-factly in cursive. Uncle Joe’s handwriting. I opened the envelope and there was a short note that went something like this: Dear Wendy. Here is the family tree I was telling you about. It is now done. Thank you for helping me with the project. Hope to see you soon. Love, Uncle Joe.
I set the envelope down. I was heading out of the house for a business trip, and wanted to take the time to read and concentrate on the contents. I placed it on the bed in my spare room, so my dogs wouldn’t chew on it while I was away.
After I returned and unpacked and got back to usual, I sent my uncle an email, thanking him for his hard work and telling him that I would call him later in the week. A few days later, my sister called and left me a nebulous voicemail message, something about “bad news” and that she couldn’t be reached until the evening. My stomach felt uneasy for the rest of the day until I heard her voice. She told me that our uncle had collapsed while jogging in the park. Died of a heart attack. 69 years old. It was tough news. He was the last of that generation to pass away.
I went to my enclave, a spare bedroom linked with bookshelves, where I keep my cherished books, photographs, and mementos, and my telescope. I just sat on the bed and cried. I hoped that he had read my email, that he knew that I was proud of his hard work in researching our family. I opened the brown envelope once again, but this time it felt different. His handwritten note made me feel as if his ever-presence were looking down on me.
The report was clean, crisp, perfectly executed, neatly typewritten. On page one were the names of my grandma’s parents and her grandparents. Those names were familiar because she had once told me about her relatives long ago over cookies and conversation. She was especially proud of her grandmother who had been born in the U.S. and had finished high school in the late 1800’s. I actually knew and remember my grandma’s father, my great-grandpa, who passed away when I was 10. He said I was as smart as a whip, because each time he did a card trick–and he loved to stump people–I could guess the right card before he even finished. The list of names continued, generation after generation, the births, the marriages, the deaths, even the divorces. Each person listed had a birthdate and a date of death, everyone else was listed as a birth date and a dash. Had our lives been diminished only to names, numbers, and dashes?
Besides those whom I knew personally or had heard about second-hand, the others were mere names and numbers. Who were they? How had they spent their lives? What were their hardships, their heartaches, and their joys? What message would they tell others if given the chance? If they had written a diary, a journal, a poem or story, or even a book they could have shared their brilliance with others.
Recently, I read an article about how, in the future, family trees will be created with the help of social media. Of links we post, of statuses, of photos posted or tagged without our knowledge, of rants, of quips, of smart remarks. Is this how we want to be remembered? For some us, maybe so. But, is the meaning our our lives merely a collection of snippets and sound bites?
We all have laughed, and we all have cried from the depths of our souls; we all have gone through trauma and come out strong again. What have we learned? What wisdom can we impart to others? Are we willing to share, or have we merely resolved to being remembered as a dash?