Growing up, trips to visit my extended family always involved at least one afternoon hunched over the dining room table looking at the family tree. My Great Uncle Bob was passionate about history, and I remember him proudly unfurling this giant roll of paper with all these supplemental pages taped together; years of careful research and inquiry.
As I child I was not very interested in this activity. Then again, I was also not very interested in playing basketball, so if there was a choice between losing game after game of ‘horse’ with my second cousins… well, I opted to stay indoors and listen to Great Uncle Bob. He would pull out the leaves on his table and anchor the massive scroll with salt and pepper shakers and a dilapidated paper napkin holder. His weathered finger would trace back the path of our family, with his neatly handwritten names, dates, and notes. He knew our Welsh ancestry back 8 to 10 generations, to a father whose three sons took very different paths: one traveled to America, one to South Africa, and one stayed in Wales. Uncle Bob was in touch with those decedents on two other continents.
As an adult, I know that family history research is an inherently privileged activity. For many people of color, their family history in America involves discrimination and persecution. For Indigenous people and Black descendants of enslaved Africans, that history is marked by trauma. There is grief, too, in those severed ancestral connections. There’s been movement to replace “family tree” activities in schools with “circle of love” activities, where students can name meaningful connections beyond just family relationships. Family trees can be traumatic, or just inaccessible, but everyone has a circle of love. I think about this a lot as an unmarried woman who chose assisted reproduction to grow my family, and am aware of the ways Jory’s family doesn’t fit into the “normal” mold (as if anyone really has a normal family!).
While I’m firmly in support of the Circles of Love model, I also look back with gratitude on my afternoons spent around Uncle Bob’s dining room table, looking at our family tree. I thought about him as I wrote Jory’s full name, Jory Elwin Shilling, on my dad’s battered copy of the family tree scroll.
My Great Uncle, the Rev. Robert Elwyn Williams, died in January 2021. He was 97 years old. He was survived by his wife of 75 years, Betsy (who is almost 100 years old now!). When I attended his digital memorial service, I saw on my screen the faces of hundreds of people who came to celebrate his life: members of the congregation he founded in Walnut Creek, friends involved in his decades of political and environmental activism, and family near and far, including sixth- or seventh-cousins attending the memorial from Wales and South Africa.
Fredrick Douglass referred to himself as a branch grafted on the tree of the church. I know Uncle Bob would agree. We are each connected to one another through the common family tree of humanity. We are all siblings in Christ, a circle of love, strengthened by our shared faith.