Family History

– Lloyd Den Boer

Paging slowly through an old family album, I pause at a photograph from the early 1900s. In it, a young man meets the camera’s gaze with quiet dignity. Poised and confident, he has the air of someone with a bright future. Yet, I know that he would lose his life in 1903 when he was only 26. Neighbours had gathered to put a roof on a new barn. It was November, meaning that the men had to finish the job soon before the weather grew more wintery. November also meant that conditions on the roof were likely to be risky. When the young man fell from the peak to the stones below and died, he left behind a pregnant wife and three children. My grandmother, the youngest of the three, was one day short of her first birthday. Although she was too young to remember life with her father, my grandmother opened any story about her childhood by noting that he had died young.

Grandma grieved the loss of a father she never knew, but the effect of his death on her family was the actual point of her stories. When my great-grandmother lost her husband, she also lost a stable source of income to support her family. After four years of poverty, she married a widower with seven children. Their marriage served the practical needs of the husband, the wife, and their children, but it was not happy. Grandma gave few of the unhappy details, yet she always closed her stories by saying that she was raised in a home without love.

What makes children feel loved and happy? “Happy families,” Tolstoy observed, “are all alike.” He added, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s puzzling statement opens Anna Karenina, a novel in which the notable characters have intense passions and dramatic lives. Intense passions may generate remarkable stories, filled with romance and treachery, but they do not generate happy families — at least not in this novel. By contrast, Tolstoy implies, there are few stories to tell about happy families. When families are happy, nothing remarkable appears to be happening. I think of a time when my father, night after night, rocked one of my twin brothers to sleep while my mother tended to the other. While he rocked, as I remember, Dad sang quietly. Here was no great drama, just a weary father quietly rocking and singing to one son while his weary wife bathed the other. Yet, this unremarkable moment is an instance of the kind of ordinary life that sets the conditions for family happiness to thrive.

Whatever may be unremarkable and ordinary about happy family life, to have a stable, loving home is no small thing. We believe that every child should have a fair chance to flourish in childhood and to succeed in life. We know that a fair chance for every child includes a family that will provide for their material needs and raise them lovingly. My grandmother’s story illustrates how easily circumstances outside a family’s control can disrupt its capacity to do these unremarkable, ordinary things.

Despite the limitations of her childhood, my grandmother became a wife, mother, and grandmother whom everyone cherished. The woman who described herself as a child raised in a home without love, herself raised a son who sang nightly to his own sons while rocking them to sleep. Families have an inherent capacity to become the stable, loving environments that children need. When circumstances beyond their control undermine that capacity, families deserve our support.