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(This essay was published, in slightly different form, in the Palo Alto Review.)

The Myth of Kin

by Jody Brady
'Bluebeard's Cabinet', by Marilyn Brown
Art by: Marilyn Brown

Anthropologists claim that kinship is a universal myth. It's a story we want to believe: some people stand closer to us in our world of competitive survival; these people are entitled to our help and they, in turn, are obligated to give us their help. I forget where I first read about the myth of kin but it was the stuff of the anthropological theory I studied in college, the basis for labeling circles "FaSi" (father's sister) or "MoBrWi" (Mother's Brother's Wife). We would "consider ego's relation to his FaSiSo" in order to understand that ego called this relative "father" because "this cousin is sib mate of ego's father."

What's important here isn't the kinship diagramming-I'm not looking to recall the intricacies of the matrilineal basis for the Basic Crow system-but what's important here is the assertion that kinship is myth. It's story. A long told, widely spread story. Or, in more anthropological terms, kinship is an arbitrary, cultural invention.

My sister is, biologically, no more obligated to me than a woman I see standing at a bus stop. My uncle has no natural bond to me. My idea of grandmother is an invention hand-in-hand with the grandmother image of story books: the plump woman with the silver bun who lives in the quaint cottage and bakes cookies while she waits, with fluttering heart, for my arrival. She feels my pains, nurses my wounds, and sets me up with her friend's grandsons. But, of course, my grandmother wasn't like that--she lived in Florida, had blonde hair, didn't bake for the last twenty years of her life and rarely wrote or called.

That grandmother is a myth. The same as kinship. Stripping away the myth, we have a father who has no bond to his grown child, sisters who share only the same gene pool and the same home growing up and cousins who don't exist unless we make them up. Aunts and Uncles are titles for our parents' siblings but they are under no umbrella of obligation; they have no natural responsibility to nurture us. And so on.

That I ache for kin is two times more unnatural. Kinship doesn't exist until it is created, defined and maintained by a population of genetically linked individuals. That's number one. Number two is that I come from a family who doesn't believe in the myth of kinship.

My mother has one brother who she hasn't seen in decades; she occasionally mentions him when something reminds her of her youth but she expresses no interest in him, no ties to him, no bond. She has no contact with and makes no references to cousins or uncles or grandparents. She recognizes no kin.

One time, when we were younger, my sisters and I wondered why we had no cousins when our friends appeared to have so many of these exotic creatures. We begged for cousins. My mother agreed to accept an invitation to a wedding so that we could meet some of our cousins and we went, driving only an hour to find that we had scores of cousins close at hand. As my mother walked around the reception hall I looked for some connection between her and these people; I thought it was something I'd see in the way they talked to one another or looked at one another. But there was nothing. She was a stranger there. I was a stranger there. Those people were kin to one another--they laughed and talked and hugged and shared jokes--but we were just strangers.

My father has one sister who he chooses not to recognize because she was born his cousin. Her mother (my father's aunt) died when she was born and her father didn't think he could take care of her; my grandparents took her home from the hospital and raised her as their daughter, eventually adopting her when her father died. Apparently, they recognized a kinship obligation to their niece.

But my father isn't discriminating against my aunt and he isn't exacting revenge on his children by not seeing us since he divorced my mother; he doesn't recognize anyone as his kin, anyone except his mother. After his father died, he occasionally spoke to his mother on the phone. He hoped that she was feeling well--and he hoped that she wasn't spending too much of the money he hoped to inherit.

Inheritance. Now there's a reason to recognize kin. Great-Uncle Freddy recognized kin; he left us money although we hardly knew him and hadn't seen him in years. Great-Aunt Edna left all her money to the church and my father was furious; that money belonged to her family. Suddenly, when she was dead--we were family.

So, unless they're dead and there's money involved, we don't have aunts, uncles or cousins, according to my parents. No kin. It makes sense, then, that my parents aren't much on recognizing parent-child bonds, either. They don't feel an obligation to call or write or visit or help. They don't invite us to their houses because they don't like children in their house--calling those children their grandchildren would be buying into that whole kinship mythology.

If I sound bitter, it's because I was bitter for many years and old habits are hard to break. I expected kinship-bonding, mutual obligation, ties, sharing, but didn't get it. I wanted a big family like the families I'd read about. I wanted multi-generational reunions, family trees, and crowded holidays. And I thought it was unnatural of my parents not to expect the same things.

My parents weren't mean people. They were aloof. If they thought about--and if they think today about--an absence of family, they have hidden it well. They don't boycott family events out of spite; they aren't after revenge for old slights. They simply don't share the myth of kin.

The family photos my parents threw away were just pictures of people they didn't know. I'm mad because they've thrown away my family. Those strangers are my family, because I choose to believe we are kin. I scrape together whatever vestiges of kinship I can resurrect. I have Great-Uncle Oscar's marksman's trophy on my shelf and I keep Great-Aunt Edna's face smiling on my end table. Until she died, I wrote to my Great-Aunt Agnes, the nun in New York and now I correspond with my uncle. We are discovering our kinship. I wrote down the family stories that I collected from my Grandma on our visits. I map out kin relations with my son that I pry from the recesses of my parents' memories. I'm going to New York to have lunch with my Aunt.

Why do I believe in kin? Why am I trying to fashion a family out of the strangers who were born to people who were born to people that were also the progenitors of my progenitors? Maybe it's because I'm lonely. But I don't think so because I have my share of friends to do things with, acquaintances to meet places, neighbors to talk to, and a husband and two children to nag. Maybe it's because I'm insecure. This is more likely. I know I'm insecure and it makes perfect sense that I would want to fashion a world where certain people were supposed to care about me just because I was born. I like that idea.

But I think it's more than that. Otherwise the myth of kinship wouldn't be so widespread. Kinship, while the stuff of volatile relationships, Oedipal and otherwise, is a force of peace. In one of my old anthropology texts I remember reading about the Australian aborigines and their intricate, extended kinship system. When two aborigines meet, they must first determine how they are related, no matter how distant that relation because they can't use the proper terms of greeting until they've determined their kinship. Once they greet one another as relatives, they've recognized their mutual obligation. Along came the white people. The aborigines attempted to kill them because it was the only thing they could think of to do with non-relatives.

Many, so-called "primitive" communities recognize extensive kinship ties and the resultant recognition of obligation is the basis for community life--whether the matrilineal system of the Trobriand islands or the collateral system of Polynesia. Perhaps a lack of kinship in the "civilized" society around me has a lot to do with the alienation, the law suits, and the materialism I see everyday. If we recognize grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, then we start to see more and more of the world around us as our own. With kinship we have ties of reciprocity--giving and taking--and ties of responsibility--nurturing the young. We have the obligation to help, hand-in-hand with the assurance that we will be helped. We see the world as a world of "us" instead of a world of "me and them".

If my big ideas about kinship are one hundred percent foolproof, then we could scan the world and correlate acts of charity and peacekeeping with extended families. But I've never demanded that of my sense of kinship.

I have just asked that Uncle Paul and Aunt Lillian in New York, Great-Aunt Rita in Ireland, cousin Midge in Kansas and my beloved Grandma in Florida share a little of themselves with me. I have asked that they believe in the myth of kinship with me if for nothing else than for the pleasure of an occasional party. We can get together, we can share good food and even better stories and we can believe, if for only a minute, that this is a world full of people with stories to share and shared skeletons to dust off.

But the truth is that I'm asking more--for my children. I like the idea that I'm bringing Matt and Kelly into a world where people will care about them just because they're kin. I want my children to have some alliances that they don't have to earn. I want to think that if something should happen to my husband and me that there would be a hoard of kin to buzz around my children--some to nurture them, some for an occasional hand and some just to make noise, to tell them that they are not alone.

Kinship is just a myth. That's okay because it makes a great bedtime story. Tuck me in and lull me to sleep with stories about cousin Eddie running away and Great-Grandma Lannen scrubbing the floor of the church. Let me sleep knowing my kin are out there; let my children sleep knowing the world is a place full of people who care about them just because.

About the author

Jody Brady is a freelance and fiction writer living in Annandale, VA. Two of her stories appear in recent anthologies: At Our Core: Women Writing about Poer (Papier Mache Press, 1998) and A More Perfect Union: Poems and Stories about the Modern Wedding (St. Martin's Press, 1998).

Other Nonfiction articles

Three Legendary Feminists
A Livid Loneliness: Women Aloft
Wind Trails on the Sea
Welcoming the Year 2000
They told me I couldn't

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