X: The Disintegrating Families of White America

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Watching CNN’s Soledad O’Brien’s show on “Black in America” and the segment on the Rand family made me pause as I realized one of those “hiding in plain sight” realities of white American life: large gatherings of all our kin don’t happen very much anymore, if they ever did. If my extended family’s any guide, we know our genealogy ( all the way back to the Pilgrims on our mother’s side and New Amsterdam Dutch on my father’s ) better than we know each other.

The Rand’s, 300 hundred strong, get together every two years with family cheers, bar b-q cook-offs, and buses arriving from around the U.S.; t-shirts sing it loud and sing it proud. On my Burghardt side, we’ve got half a family tree on eight feet of graph paper sitting on a shelf in the shed. On my mother’s side, the Robinsons, there are a couple of pictures of an old guy with a hell of a beard. He’s not cheering in any of them.

Leaving aside the Mormons, do white families get together very much? Ours sure haven’t. My mom was pretty great day-to-day, but even she faltered when it came to family connection. Except for her sister Lucia and her kids, we never met a one, save once. Turned out we had a famous cousin, Alan Boyd, who later was LBJ’s Secretary for Transportation. Invited to speak at the nearby Coast Guard Academy, he paid us a visit, eating a dinner of lobster and potato salad hastily prepared by my mother.

Warm and generous, Secretary Boyd invited my sister Betsy and I to visit his wife and son Mark, a year younger than us, in Washington, D.C. There wasn’t a site we didn’t see, nor a meal less than perfect for thirteen-year-olds: burgers and fries, fried chicken and dumplings; enough bacon and pancakes with homemade maple syrup in the morning to give a whole new meaning to carbo-loading. And cousin Mark was a cool little kid. My fondest memory of the whole sha-bang was rolling on the floor as we watched cartoons, caught up in some pre-adolescent silliness between us and Donald Duck that no adult could ever understand.

Returning home, a day or two later I asked my mother for some paper to write a thank you note. Looking away, she seemed lost in thought. Maybe she was thinking about the cub scout troop she served as den mother for, or perhaps wondering whether there was enough peanut butter and marshmallow for the gang of kids who descended on our home every day in late afternoon, always assured of her generous portions. “Oh, don’t bother,” she said quietly. “I don’t think you have to do that.”

Ever the dutiful son, I never sent a line, never saw the Boyds again. That morning memory of unease that burrowed inside me stayed there over the years, upset at not sending a note, confused at how my perfect mom to me and the all the kids had momentarily become something else. Without knowing why, my family world was etched smaller after that, a circle of five plus one aunt’s family, enough for a pick-up basketball game, as long as nobody got hurt.

I learned why a few years later as I stumbled through a college textbook and ran into a 19th century cartoon by “Puck,” the famous cartoonist from the Herald Tribune. There stood a roly-poly man in a three-piece suit, his vest a pork barrel, his name Lucius Robinson. His caricatured nose the size of a bulbous beet, I saw its outlines as the same as mine, his name the same as my grandfather’s. My grandfather’s! Maaa, who is this guy? How come I never heard of him?! Maa, he was the governor of New York!

It was a conversation as short it was quiet. My great-great grandfather, Lucius Robinson was governor of New York. My great-grandfather was lieutenant governor of New York. My grandfather, whom I remembered for his White Owl cigar wrappers and smell of day-old bourbon on his stubbly chin, was a clerk in a paper mill.

How I became a member of America’s smallest ethnic minority, the Downwardly Mobile American Yankee, is a story for another day. What matters here is that I had a partial answer to why my generous mother became different one summer day long, long ago. If getting together brings up ‘what might have been’ rather than ‘what we are and can be,’ perhaps people like to stay away. White economic failure and loss of social standing, when it happens, can seem to us to have no more justifiable explanation than the singular shame of individual failure, again and again. Other folks seem to know better.

How wonderful Our America could be, if our extended families could be open to the lessons from us all.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on August 20, 2008 9:00 AM.

Speaking Our Truths was the previous entry in this blog.

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