In Memory of Libby Lucas (1934-2018)

I wrote this piece to be read at my grandmother's funeral today in Ohio. These are my specific memories of a very special person, but I hope maybe something in it will speak to you too, whoever your grandparents are or were... 

Whether through nature or nurture, so much of who I am came from my Grandma Libby. I am so sorry to not be present for her today in body. I hope you all know I am present in spirit. And I want to thank all of you who took care of Grandma these last years of her life. Thank you for being there for her. You are all loved and appreciated. 

My recollections of Grandma Libby- 

When I was around 20 I got my hair cut really short. My grandma Libby told me, “that is the ugliest haircut I’ve ever seen, and if anyone tells you different, they are lying to make you feel better.” I’m smiling even as I type this remembering that day. And so many others where my grandmother would just bluntly tell things as she saw them. There was little pretense. Just a genuine, honest assessment. My grandmother lived and spoke her truth. Always. To everyone. 

So to honor her, I would like to share some truths about her. She was a different kind of Grandmother from the tv grandma. She didn’t bake, or even cook. She never made dresses or even sewed on buttons. But she was the very best kind of grandmother- she was the kind of Grandmother who showed up. She was always present in our lives. At every important event, at every celebration, at every concert and sports game. And on lots of days in between. She took us on trips and played games with us. We knew we mattered to her. We knew she would do anything for us. Even tell us the truth about unflattering hair cuts when no one else would. 

Grandma liked bingo and slot machines and Bob Evans. And she never carried a purse. Just walked around with what she needed in her pockets. Which wasn’t very much. Again, there was little pretense or pomp. She just got on with things. And while she didn’t need a lot of stuff, she loved gathering experiences. Going places, seeing things. And really enjoying them. When we would travel through the mountains, she would pull over at every lookout point to see the view. No matter how close together they were or how many others we had stopped at. Sometimes this was frustrating. As teenagers, we just wanted to get on with the trip. But Grandma taught us that stopping to look at the view was the trip. Life is not a destination… 

Grandma would also embarrass us sometimes with her propensity for talking to everyone. I mean everyone. I don’t think I ever saw her walk past someone and not speak to them. And I don’t think I ever had a meal with her in a restaurant where she did not give an honest assessment of the food or the service. If you asked my grandma her opinion, you would get it. And sometimes even if you didn’t ask! Nothing about Grandma was fake.

She did not sit on the sidelines of life. She participated fully. She volunteered with the Union. She took care of her neighbors. She spent time on the things she thought mattered. And she lived her truth. Even when it was difficult. And she loved us. And she loved my mom and my stepfather. Even though Grandma Libby was my dad’s mom. I was so young when my parents divorced that I have no real memories of them together, but I have tons and tons of memories of my mom and Grandma Libby together- I will be forever grateful for the relationship my paternal grandmother had with my mom. Their relationship helped define family for me. Which is so much bigger than blood. 

Grandma Libby was honest and blunt, but always kind and open. She made people feel comfortable and welcome at the party. She simply walked around with what she needed in her pockets, gathering experiences, looking at the view and talking to everyone. She didn’t pretend to be anything other than what she was and she didn’t hide what she thought. And I want to be just like her when I grow up. 

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My Complicated Family Tree: Story of a Grateful Stepchild

Not too long after I separated from their father, my oldest daughter joked around saying she hoped if I ever got remarried the man wouldn't have kids. She said she didn't want to have any step siblings. When I asked why not, she replied, "Haven't you ever seen a fairy tale?" I laughed. Then I pointed out that if I did get remarried, I would be the stepmom of the story. Which would make her and her sister the evil stepsisters. That blew her mind a little bit! Then she said perhaps the truest statement ever, "Yes, but you're not wicked. You're just overwhelming..." Fast forward a while and now this summer my girls will be getting a stepsister (they are no longer concerned she might be evil!) and I will become a stepmom.

And so not wanting to be too overwhelming, I decided to do a little research.  As I skimmed through descriptions of books written by experts and stepparents with all kinds of advice, it occurred to me. I already know quite a lot about best practices in stepfamilies. In fact, my childhood was kind of like a Master's level course on the subject. Both my parents had stepparents. I had stepparents. Even my stepparent had stepparents.

Now like everyone, I have some issues stemming from my upbringing. Because the adults in my life, like all other adults, had their faults. (I could list both my issues and their faults over a drink some time if you like) But I promise you that none of my issues stem from my parents' divorce or being part of a stepfamily. Because when it came to modeling the right way to blend families, the adults in my life were the very best. Here's some of what I learned: 

It is much easier for a child when all the important adults in their life seem to like each other. No one ever made me feel like there were sides to choose. They didn't even make it look hard to get along. A fact that now as an adult looking back, I can appreciate how difficult that must have been at times. But I have no memories of either of my parents ever saying anything bad about the other. My stepfather and father would go play basketball together. And while I had friends with divorced parents who had to have two of everything because their parents couldn't be in the same room together, in my family, we spent holidays and birthdays with anyone in town to celebrate: ex-husbands, new wives, grandparents from all sides with their 2nd (or 4th!) spouses. My uncle lived in a trailer in his ex-wife and her husband's yard for years to be close to my cousins. My father's mother and her 2nd husband were so close with my mom and my stepdad, you would have assumed they were one of their parents. And in a way, they were. 

The adults in my life growing up taught me that commitment makes a family. Not blood relationships. And once you've made a commitment to someone, you can change the marital status, but they are still your family. And their family is your family. And everyone is always welcome at the party. Crazy ex or not. And even when someone messes up in a big way, if they come back knocking on the door, then you let them in like the prodigal son. And this open, accepting family policy helped me to grow into an open, accepting human being. And I am grateful to my complicated family tree for that. 

As much as I appreciate and learned from all sides of my messy family tree, I am most thankful for the lessons taught to me by my stepfather and his family. Or rather my family on my stepfather's side. My mother married my stepfather when I was 7 years old and suddenly I was part of a huge family. He had 5 brothers and sisters, and they all had kids. My sister and I were the only stepchildren. And yet no one ever made us feel like we were any different from any other child in that family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles treated us the same way they treated all of their biological grandchildren and nieces and nephews. That sense of belonging was a blessing. 

My stepfather was only 20 years old when he married my mom. And my sister and I already had a dad. One who was a part of our lives. And yet for most of the year, we lived with our stepfather and our mom. Again, now as an adult, and future stepparent, I am beginning to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of his position. But as a child, I never sensed there was an issue. 

Because even though he didn't replace my dad, he was absolutely one of my parents. When I fell off my bike and needed stitches, he carried me to get help. He taught me how to drive. And  when I ran out of gas, he brought me some on the side of the road. When I got lost (which happened all too frequently!) I called him for directions. He coached my t-ball team and never seemed to mind that I spent all the games picking dandelions. He grounded me when I came home a few minutes past curfew. He came to every school event and band concert. He took me bowling. He read me stories. He played with me. Sometimes he yelled at me. But always he loved me. And he never asked for anything in return. Just like a real parent. 

And yet as much as he was absolutely a parent to my sister and me, we did not call him dad. Even as we called his parents grandma and grandpa, and his brothers and sisters aunt and uncle, we always called him by his name. If that bothered him, he never let it show. He certainly never made me feel guilty about it. But I always thought he deserved his own title. 17 years ago when my first niece was born, he got one. Papaw. And now my girls have 6 grandparents (soon to be 8) and yet they only have one Papaw. A papaw we all love. 

 Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

I am a grateful stepchild. Thankful for the lessons being a stepdaughter taught me. That family is a living, growing organism. And children need to feel the important adults in their lives like and respect one another. And there is room in the heart for so many. And when we add new members, we never need to replace or push out the old ones. Maybe just do some rearranging. Love is not a competition. And neither is parenting... 

 

 

 

Goodbye Letter for my TLG Family

Dear TLG Friends, 

Since the day we opened in 2007, it has been an absolute joy owning and operating The Little Gym of Huntsville. I believe strongly in the mission and program of The Little Gym International. And I am so proud of the environment we’ve created in our location here in Huntsville. 

Despite my continued love for The Little Gym, it is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life. So l have sold the gym completely to my business partner, Corey Hernandez. Many of you know and love him already. He has owned half of the gym since 2015. And he will continue to ensure that it is easy to do business at The Little Gym of Huntsville. His management style and overall customer service philosophy are very similar to my own. And I have every confidence I am leaving the gym in fantastic hands. 

 Ribbon Cutting in 2007. Notice the guy by the blue balloon. It's Corey! Then just family friend. Destined to be TLG Owner! 

Ribbon Cutting in 2007. Notice the guy by the blue balloon. It's Corey! Then just family friend. Destined to be TLG Owner! 

I will still be teaching through the end of this Season in May 2017. So I'm not quite ready to walk out the door. There will be plenty of time to say goodbye. But I did want to officially start the process now by thanking you all for your support and business over the last 10 years.

I can not adequately express how much all of you have meant to me. I hope you can see in the pictures below that over the last 10 years, as the staff shirts changed and my weight fluctuated, one thing remained constant: I really loved my job. 

It was an honor being able to get to know so many beautiful families over the years. I hope your children learned from me. I know I learned from them. Every single class I taught was my favorite. Every bubble time was like magic. Every new skill a child learned I celebrated. Every day was Serious Fun. 

Thank you all for being a part of it. 

Warmly,
Angel Hundley 

P.S. I loved owning this franchise so much, I branded myself for life. Literally. You can see pictures and read all about my new tattoo here

And for those of you who are curious about the next chapter of my life, this summer I am moving to Manchester, England. You can read about that story here. 

And now for some of my favorite memories... 

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The Space In Between...

This is another post where I don't know how to begin. Because I'm not sure where the story starts really. In some ways it starts in 1992 with a boy. Let's call him Steve (mostly because that's his name). And in some ways it starts in 2017 with a ring. Let's say it looks like this (because it does)...

That's my hand wearing the ring. And this is my engagement announcement of sorts. Because I'm going to marry the boy from 1992. This summer in 2017. In Ohio near where we met 25 years before while working at a camp together. And then my daughters (and my dog) and I are moving to Manchester, England where Steve is a Drama Professor. I know that's a lot of information to process. You see why I didn't know where to start? 

Let's go back to the ring. Isn't it lovely? When Steve gave it to me, he explained that the sparkly bit on one side represented our history, our relationship in 1992 and the sparkly bit on the other side was our present, our relationship now. And the two bits are joined by a silver band representing the 25 years in the middle that we carry with us, including our daughters. And that the ring isn't a complete circle, because we haven't arrived back where we started all those years ago. We are in a close, but different sparkly place. (A magical place with email and facetime! In 1992, when he returned home to England after that summer, we had to handwrite and mail letters. But I digress...) 

I love my ring. And the metaphor Steve created when he gave it to me. (Although his daughter thinks it's the sappiest thing she's ever heard!) But I want to expand on the metaphor. (Because I'm even sappier.) What makes this ring design work is the space in between the two sparkly bits. The space gives the diamonds room to shine. The ring looks delicate and precious because of the space. And at the same time, the space makes the ring more resilient, more able to grow and expand as my finger might. The space is what makes it beautiful and strong. 

My younger daughter told me she was glad it hadn't worked out with me and Steve in 1992 because it meant that she and her sister and Steve's daughter all got to be born. And she added she was glad it is working out now because she gets nice new family members. I told her I couldn't agree more. I don't regret for a second one minute of the space between those sparkly bits. Not to mention there were plenty of other sparkly bits over the last 25 years. And I am certain there will be many more. And what makes my whole life beautiful, and my spirit strong, is all of it. All of the space and all of the shiny. 

Right now my life is all about change. I'm in the process of selling my house and my business. I'm transitioning out of volunteer roles I've held for years. I'm preparing to move to a new country. And as I look back, I am so proud of the life I've lived. And thankful for all of the people who occupied the spaces with me. And I appreciate the highlights, the sparkly bits, all the more because of the space, the living, that surrounded them. Take my business, The Little Gym of Huntsville, for example. Opening it in 2007 and handing it over in 2017 are both beautiful highlights from my life in Huntsville, Alabama. Moments in time I will always treasure and remember. But those moments, those sparkly bits, only shine because of all the work that happened in the space between. All the bills I had to pay, all the staff meetings I had to run, all the marketing decisions I had to make, all the windows I had to clean. 

This time of transition is not all just nostalgic musings. I have a lot of work to do to facilitate all these life changes. Sometimes all the work feels overwhelming. But when my stress starts to rise, I try to remind myself that I am living in the space next to a sparkly bit. And that is not a bad place to be. That is the space after all where living takes place. The space that makes the beautiful moments shine and the space that supports the spirit as it grows.  

 Stratford-Upon-Avon. June 2016. Steve, his daughter Eleanor, family friend Grace, my daughter Julia, me, and my daughter Alaina. 

Stratford-Upon-Avon. June 2016. Steve, his daughter Eleanor, family friend Grace, my daughter Julia, me, and my daughter Alaina. 

Our Rearranged Family

I've been wanting to write this post for awhile. I just don't know how to start. I know what I want to say in the middle, and even the thoughts I want to finish up with, but I have no words to start the story... so I leave the post unwritten. And when I run into casual friends out and about and they ask me how Jason is, or how his business is going, I say fine. I don't say, "he's fine, but we've been separated for nearly a year actually." Because that seems like a weird place to start the story. Especially in the middle of a grocery store.  But he is fine. And so am I. And so are our kids. I guess I want to start there. Telling you we are all fine. 

And some of you might be confused. You might be thinking, but wait, I've seen you together this past year. Or I've seen pictures of you at holidays and special occasions. Or if you were at Salsarita's yesterday, you might be thinking you saw us having lunch together. You would be right on all counts. We do still hang out together. We did not separate in anger. We separated out of need to do what is best for our relationship. We decided we function better apart. And it was not a quick decision or an easy process. But we are ok. Really. And so are our kids. In fact, even the day we told them about the separation, they were ok. Our 9-year-old asked, "so does this mean I'm going to have 2 bedrooms?" We said eventually, yes. She replied, "Great. Because I have a lot of toys, and I could use a place to move some of them." 

Now I'm not saying everyone took the news so well. When one of our extended family members heard, she cried. And I felt horrible that we were breaking up our family. And then my soon to be ex-husband said perhaps the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me, "We are not breaking up the family. We are just rearranging the family." Still brings tears to my eyes thinking about that moment. And I cling to its truth. We are not a broken family, we are a rearranged family. This might just seem like semantics. But words matter. And I don't want my children to feel like they are from a "broken" home. 

We have raised our kids to respect differences and accept people and families as they are. They know families look different. And they know that love is what makes a family. And I know from personal experience growing up with step family members I love dearly and parents who showed me a healthy way for divorced parents to act with one another, that it is possible for kids to not be traumatized by divorce. And for families to function well after a divorce.

 And yet when I tell people about our separation, I still sometimes feel shame. Like I've done something wrong. And so sometimes I don't say anything. Sometimes I hide for fear of the pity or judgement I imagine others to be passing on our broken family. But it's time to stop hiding. And time to stop feeling shame. I'm not saying divorce is the best choice for everyone, or even for anyone. I'm just saying it is not a choice to be ashamed of either. Because we are not broken. We still love one another. We still work together to raise our children. We will always be a family- one I am quite proud of actually. A rearranged family. 

So if you see me in the grocery store and ask about Jason, I will tell you he is fine. Because he is. We all are. I wish you all the kind of love and support and happiness I've found in my rearranged family. 

Confession of an older sister

I have a sister who is 3 years younger than I am. I know this because as an adult she has been a tremendous source of love and support for me. Truth be told though, my memories of her as a child are sketchy. Almost non-existent in a weird selective amnesia way. And as I watch my own younger daughter trying desperately to get the attention and approval of her older sister these days, I sometimes shake my head in shame... 

One day a few years back, my sister said something about my 16th birthday party. I was like, "oh, were you there?" She assured me she was... but perhaps the worst thing I have no memory of is the day she entered puberty. She says she was home alone with me the day she got her first period. My loving response? Allegedly I told her to walk to her friend's house for help (and to get supplies!) because I was about to be picked up for a date... This sounds like it could be true to me....I mean, if I had a date, right?!? And when she told me this story as an adult, I asked her if I knew it was her first time having a period, she responded with a pretty emphatic, "OH, YOU KNEW!" 

So I'd like to say sorry to her now for that abuse. And for all the other slights I don't even remember making. And I'd like to tell her that I see and remember her now. I see the wonderful woman she grew up to be. I see her strength and her compassion. And I'd like to take some of the credit for those things, I mean clearly my ignoring her led to her learning to be strong. And I imagine gave her a sense of compassion for others mistreated and marginalized... Wait. No.... 

There is research to show that the biggest predictor of personality is birth order. This gives me some comfort. I can't be the only older sister in history to have overlooked my younger sibling... So on behalf of older sisters everywhere, I'd like to apologize. It's not that we didn't like you little ones. We never thought about you enough to not like you. It was nothing personal. And hopefully you will give us the chance to be real friends as adults. To see you as you are, and appreciate all you offer the world and our family. Like my sister has.

Thank you Kristy for coming down to take care of me recently after my surgery. Thank you for always being there when I need you. And when you need me, I will never again pawn you off on a friend so that I can go on a date... 


We Are Family

This was originally a lay sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist church in Huntsville, Alabama  and then posted on the Global Family Reunion blog

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. ~Jane Howard

Family. We all need it.  Today I want us to think about the families that we choose.

In every family there is disappointment and hurt. Sometimes even failures. So when I talk today about an obligation to family, I don’t mean we should stay in hurtful relationships. I mean the “family” that does support and love you. The family that we all need is a network of relationships that can bring us support, joy, fun and connection.

Maybe for some of you when you hear the word family you do picture your birth parents and your blood relatives. For others your family might have come through adoption. Or marriage. Or maybe your family is a group that started out as just great friends. Growing up, my favorite “aunt” was actually my mother’s best friend from high school. And her children were more like siblings to me than even just cousins. Think about that family for you. This is the feeling of family I’d like you to draw from today.

And I know many of you have been working hard for years to fight for marriage rights. To legally have the families you’ve built, or your friends have built in love be recognized in the law. And when we scheduled this sermon for today in the worship meeting even just a couple months ago, I had no idea that when I gave the talk we’d be one day before Wedding Week in Huntsville, Al. Honestly, I never thought we’d be one year from equal marriage rights in Alabama, let alone one day from actual ceremonies being held in Big Spring Park! What a glorious Sunday this turned out to be for me to share with you this extraordinary project about building family.

So why do we need family? I think because we need to know that someone will be there for us no matter what. See, you take care of your family. When Jason and I were first married, we took in my teen-age cousin who had been living as a runaway on the streets. And then a few years later, we took in that cousin’s younger brother after he was released from a juvenile work/farm program. Moved him all the way from Ohio to California with us. We did this because they were our family and they needed a home. We certainly didn’t “need” troubled teenagers living with us when we were newlyweds. But I felt a responsibility to them because they were my family, and I knew I had the means to help them at that time. And Jason felt by marrying me, my family became his family, and so we felt obligated to help them. And I know that Jason and I are not alone in believing you take care of your family. Again, however your family came to be.

So what if we could widen that definition of family? What if we as a society could build a new way of viewing who we are responsible for helping? Who are family really is? I’ve been volunteering with a Project called The Global Family Reunion for the last five months that is attempting to do just that.

Before I get into that though, let me back up and tell you how I got interested and involved in this project. It all starts with my adoration of, perhaps even slight obsession with an author named AJ Jacobs. He wrote the Year of Living Biblically and a few other books. And I love reading every word he writes. He makes me laugh and think. And I can pay no higher compliment than that really. And so when I was looking at recent TED Talks on my Apple TV this summer and saw AJ had a new one, I obviously watched it. It was about his new book project- the Global Family Reunion. The basic premise was that he was trying to build the world’s largest family tree. And he invited people to hook up to the tree and then come to a party in New York, get a bracelet and be in a picture. Well, if someone you’re mildly obsessed with invites you to be in a picture with them, you make every effort to go. And so I decided to start researching my family tree.

Let me be clear, at this point in the story, I had no interest in genealogy or my ancestors. See, much of my “family” is not blood related to me.  Instead my family has been built through second marriages. I could not have loved my step-relatives more. And so I knew that family was much more than blood, so I never really had interest in researching my ancestors. Until AJ Jacobs invited me to a party… And so I got to work.

I’m going to read now from a blog post I wrote on August 22, 2014. (posted on previous blogspot site)

"Let’s all meet at the Global Family Reunion!

I just found out I am a cousin of my favorite non-fiction writer, AJ Jacobs. And by cousin, I mean I am a distant relative on his Aunt Jane’s husband’s side of the family. And by distant relative, I mean we have 31 degrees of separation between us on the WikiTree Connection Finder. And that, my friends, is good enough to get me in the family photo!

This photo will be taken at the Global Family Reunion in New York City, June 2015. And you are all invited too. The website describes the event as “the biggest, most extraordinary and most inclusive family reunion in history. Come meet fascinating cousins you never knew you had — and learn about how we are building a Family Tree of the entire Human Race.”

Sounds awesome, right?!? And as for the photo, “Those with a proven connection to the world’s biggest family tree (currently at 77 million people) get a bracelet and take part of the largest family photo in history.” And if all that isn’t enough to get you excited, “Sister Sledge will lead us in the largest sing-along of “We Are Family” in history.” How could you not want to be part of that?!

So in order to connect myself to this Family Tree, I had to do some research. Prior to starting, I literally only knew the names of 4 out of my 8 great-grandparents. And I knew zero about any one else further back on my tree. But I knew I loved reading about all of AJ Jacobs projects through the years, and here was my chance to be part of one. So I started with no other goal in mind really than to get my bracelet and eligibility for the picture.

I actually met that goal pretty early on in my research. Through my great-grandma Rodger’s side of the family. But as I started to add names to my family tree, I kinda got hooked on it. And I’ve learned some really cool things about many of my ancestors.

My 7-year-old daughter’s favorite fact is that I traced one branch of my tree back to King Alpin and Queen Fergusia of Scotland. She asked, “so we are royalty?!?” I tried to explain that we were just distant descendants of Royalty on one branch of our tree. This was pretty much a distinction without a difference for her. So if you run into her one day, and she expects you to kneel, I apologize… Of course she also requested that I trace us back to the first monkey. I told her unfortunately written records didn’t go back that far…

My favorite newly found ancestor by far is my 1st cousin 8 times removed, Mary Elizabeth Greenlee (born McDowell). She was born in Northern Ireland in 1707, and she died in Rockbridge County, Virgina in 1809. She is described in one history as, “a feisty lady. Some people thought she was a witch. The Indians thought she was crazy. They believed bad things would happen to them if they harmed a crazy person and Mary was allowed to freely roam in and out of their camps. Mary probably was not crazy, but was actually very smart, although somewhat eccentric.”

Now that’s someone I am proud to call family…

True confession time, I moved to the South 15 years ago, and I never understood the Southern obsession with family history. In fact, I kinda mocked it. My husband and I hung a plaque marker on our first house that read, “In 1868 nothing happened here.” I really did not get the pride people had in their lineage or in who had lived or slept once in their homes ages ago.

And I certainly did not care about who my ancestors were. What I realize now, is that I did not care because I did not know. Over the last weeks I have developed an unexpected attachment to my roots. I feel part of something bigger than I ever have before. I have felt a little less of just one random life.

It is easy to not care about something when you have little to no knowledge about it. Which is kind of the point of the whole Global Family Reunion Project. When you realize you are literally related through blood or marriage to 77 other million people (and counting) it makes it harder to not care about those other people. And the more knowledge one gets about our great big human family, the hope is the more one will care about our great big human family."

Ok, so I sent the link to that blog post to The Global Family Reunion (GFR) email on their website. Their chief cousin coordinator, who I now know as Eowyn, posted the link on the GFR Facebook page. AJ Jacobs read my post and commented, “Hi Angel, What a wonderful post, my cousin! Thank you so much! And I will DEFINITELY kneel before your daughter when I meet her. I can’t wait. And I love my feisty, eccentric ancestor as well. I’m at aj@ajjacobs.com if you ever have any questions.
AJ”

So if someone you are mildly obsessed with invites you to a conversation, you join in. And so I emailed AJ Jacobs and asked if he’d considered encouraging people to have their own Global Family reunions on June 6th much like the Yuri’s Night Space Party model I’ve been involved with for years. He said they had, but hadn’t quite started figuring out things and would I like to help. Week later I’m on a conference call with AJ and Eowyn brainstorming ideas and I’m the Branch Party Liaison for these new events which I even named. Talk about surreal. I’ve now helped sign up groups like the Cherokee Nation to host their own Global Family Reunion Branch Parties on the same day. And there will be one here in Huntsville in Big Spring Park hosted by CAJA. Details still being worked out.

But back to my surreal start in the project, I mean when AJ first started emailing me he was all like, “hey, this is your cousin AJ” and “hello cousin Angel” and cousin this and cousin that. I felt a little like I had joined a cult. Not going to lie. But eventually the cousin talk became normal. Instead of feeling like I was in some dream world corresponding with a famous author I had loved for years, it began to feel like I really was just brainstorming and working with cousin AJ. And I even send emails out now addressing people as cousin, and it feels totally natural.

That’s one thing I really love about AJ’s approach to this work. He’s not just making it about the science or genealogy. He really is working to build community and redefine human relationships. But I’ll get to that in a minute. First let me review the science and genealogy work involved in the project.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who understands evolution, or anyone even who believes in the creation myth for that matter, that all humans can be traced back to two ancestors. Scientists call them Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosomal Adam and they lived in Africa 100,000 to 300,000 years ago.

What is perhaps surprising though is that according to MIT scientists, at most, we are 70th cousins from anyone else on earth. 70th cousins. By blood relationship. That’s less connections between you and every other human on the planet than there are people in the church right now. Think about that for a moment.
Here’s how AJ describes the project in article he wrote for Mental Floss back in July of 2014.

“I’m one of thousands of researchers tackling the biggest challenge in the history of ancestry: We are building a family tree of the entire human race. All seven billion members.

It’s an incredibly ambitious project, requiring countless hours online, billions of obscure records, and unprecedented numbers of DNA tests. And frankly, we’ve got a long way to go. But at least we’ve made a dent: Currently, the world family tree includes some 77 million people in all seven continents (including Antarctica). That’s 77 million people on a single tree, all connected by blood or marriage or (sometimes) both. Which makes for the longest branches in human history. Paltrow is 17 steps from me. Einstein is 21. President Obama is my aunt’s fifth great-aunt’s husband’s father’s wife’s seventh great-nephew. Practically my older brother!

Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to conceive of this megatree. Back then, in order to build your tree, you had to schlep to, say, a Cleveland courthouse or write oft-ignored letters to distant relatives. Then along came the Internet and the Wikipedia model. Several sites—including WikiTree and Geni (which is owned by MyHeritage)—have revolutionized the field with a collaborative, crowdsourced approach to family-tree planting.

So how does it work, exactly? You start small with a family sampling, entering the details you know. If the “A.J. Jacobs” on your tree matches the “A.J. Jacobs” on somebody else’s tree, then you are given the option to combine them. With a click, your tree can double. Repeat this a few times and you will eventually be linked to a worldwide family tree. (Geni’s Big Tree is 77 million, and WikiTree’s is 7 million).

“It’s much easier to collaborate instead of working on your own,” says Gilad Japhet, the CEO of MyHeritage and Geni. “Imagine a million people solving a single multibillion-piece jigsaw puzzle instead of everyone solving their own separate puzzles. In a decade or less, I believe we’ll have a single tree that will include most of the people living on earth.”

Before we get there, we’ve got obstacles to overcome. One big challenge is accuracy. If you’ve got thousands of collaborators, what’s to stop one from changing the tree so that Jimi Hendrix is the son of Chester A. Arthur? Luckily, a core of volunteer experts (they call themselves forest rangers) is trying to verify the connections and make sure they’re well-documented. But this remains an area of dispute, especially the further you go back. (Some branches claim to go back to Biblical times, which requires more leaps of faith than I’m willing to make.)

There’s also the privacy issue. Some traditional genealogists don’t like that family names are out in the open. Instances of sabotage have even occurred, where profiles are deleted and branches cut. Geni and WikiTree do obscure the names of living persons, but privacy continues to be a flash point for modern genealogists.

Some skeptics have asked why we should care about identifying all these branches of our family trees. “This sounds like a nightmare,” one friend told me. “I have enough trouble with the relatives I have already. I don’t want millions more.”

I understand his point, but here’s why I think the mega-tree will be world-changing, assuming we can pull it off. First: the scientific value. A team of MIT scientists is studying the Geni world family tree to see how populations migrate and how diseases are passed down, which will help pinpoint genes and cures. In fact, it’s already yielding insights into the heritability of longevity. Second, and I know this sounds idealistic, but my collaborators and I believe it might make the world a kinder place.”

A kinder place- we’ll get to his world vision in a moment. An update on the stats now-

In July 2014, just 6 months ago, when that article was written the tree included 77 million people, but Cousin AJ told me two days ago it is now at 85 million people! 40 million of whom are alive today. 40 million live people on the same family tree. And we’re throwing a party for them… And oh by the way, when I wrote my blog, I was 31 steps from AJ through my mother’s side. Now my Wikitree connector says I am just 30 steps away from him through my dad’s side! So to review- I’m connected on both my parents’ sides. You see what that means? My parents are cousins too!
So why should we care about this project beyond just curiosity? In one article about the project a Genealogist named Megan Cherie Owens wrote “hardly surprising that well-resourced people in the public eye have well-resourced ancestors in common”.

She added: “It’s a bit of fun, and sweet to think of us all as ‘a global family’. But it’s really just a mathematical exercise, resulting in not very meaningful multiple-degrees-of-separation.”

Not very meaningful degrees of separation. I would agree with her about that if you just strictly look at the research. Building a big family tree might be useful for scientists tracing disease, but how is that going to make the world a kinder place?

Here is where AJs approach and cousin talk comes in. The whole goal of the reunion is to bring people to the table to discuss ideas of family. He has planned it to be part TED Talk part party. There will be scientists talking and Sister Sledge singing and comedians making us laugh. All on the same day. And all of them calling each other cousin.

One of the things AJ likes to point out to people is how we are all closely related to someone like Einstein and someone like Jeffery Dahmer. If not exactly them. The point is none of us have any more reason than any other human to be proud or ashamed of our heritage. Because we have the same heritage if you go back far enough. He also has been working to show politicians how closely they are related to one another. One of my favorite quotes is what Barbara Bush said upon learning the Bush’s were pretty close relatives to Bill Clinton. She said, “‘I always suspected he was my son from another mother.’”

And From an article AJ wrote for the Guardian after the mid-term elections, “It’s been a tough week for the Obama family.

On Tuesday night, Barack Obama’s second cousin – a radiologist named Milton Wolf – lost the closer-than-expected Republican primary for US Senate in Kansas. Wolf and Obama share a relatively recent ancestor, a 19th century farm laborer named Thomas McCurry. Barack leaned left, Milton leaned right – he was a Tea Party candidate who believed his second cousin was “destroying America”. But still, they are, officially, kin.

So now Barack Obama is deprived of having a cousin in the US Senate.

Or is he?

I’m working with a team of researchers who are building the biggest family tree in history. And I’ve got good news for President Obama: it turns out that the man who defeated Wolf, the incumbent Kansas senator Pat Roberts, is also his cousin. Really. Roberts is Obama’s 13th cousin, four times removed.

In fact, we’ve found that Obama has no less than 44 confirmed cousins in the Senate, including Texas Republican Ted Cruz (the husband of Obama’s 14th cousin, once removed) and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake (Obama’s eighth cousin, three times removed). And more to come. In the next few months, we plan to figure out how all 100 senators are connected to each other. One big happy, dysfunctional family…

Maybe we could put up a big family-tree chart in the Senate chamber to remind them of their close ties. (I’m only sort of joking.) Maybe politicians could address each other in debates by yielding their time to the senior senator from Wisconsin – and their third cousin once removed.”

I like this idea of having the senators address each other with their familial ties in the title. I believe words matter. And socio-linguists would back me up on that. Maybe showing someone they’re 12 steps from someone else on a family tree won’t change their perception of family. Or necessarily of the human race. But what if we started to define relationships in the language of family? What if instead of using “race” on census forms we asked for the branch of the family you belonged to? What if we identified groups of people in relation to other groups instead of how they are different?

It’s sort of the “fake it till you make it” strategy on a grand scale. What if we started to use the language of family, which is honestly more scientifically grounded in truth than terms like “race” anyway? Would our natural instinct to feel responsible for family make us somehow feel more responsible to new groups identified enough times as family? I’d like to think it would. I’d like to think we can widen our positive connotations from family- fun, connection, support. That’s what I have faith in.

I have faith in the power of words and our longing for family. I have faith that one day we can understand that our family can be a large, messy, inclusive circle encompassing all. That we can define ourselves by relationships not by differences. I have faith that one day we may all feel some obligation to take in a homeless teen off the streets if we have the means simply because he is our 12th cousin once removed. Because cousins take care of each other.

I hope you will want to join my cousin AJ and me in this effort. I invite you to go to Global Family reunion.com and take a look at the project. Or ask me how you can get involved. And I have faith that one day soon we will all be singing together.

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up everybody and sing

Everyone can see we’re together
As we walk on by
and we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie
 all of the people around us they say
Can they be that close
Just let me state for the record
We’re giving love in a family dose

 We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up everybody and sing

My Grandmother Lived

Of all the things my mom did for me growing up, the one I'm the most thankful for is when she married us into a large, crazy family on Feb 6th, 1981. I was 7 years old and suddenly I had a step-father and new uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. All of whom welcomed my sister and me and always treated us like family. Even saying "treated us like family" seems wrong. They didn't treat us like family, we were family. We are family.

And in the center of that family was my Grandmother, Nellie Austin. She died yesterday Dec. 13, 2014. And so this post is for her. And for my step-father and his 5 brothers and sisters who loved her. And for my sister and cousins who shared her with me. 

Grandma Nellie was not what you think of as a traditional grandma. She didn't sew or bake cookies. She didn't offer sage advice. She didn't solve problems. Truth be told, she sometimes caused problems. She was loud. She was confrontational. And she was real. And I hope to one day grow up to be just like her.

Grandma Nellie lived. She was not afraid of life. If there was music playing, she was on the dance floor. You always knew she was in the room. As a child, that was sometimes embarrassing. But as an adult, I find it admirable. She lived out loud. She did not sit in a corner worrying about what others thought or how she should act. She jumped up and danced. 

Grandma Nellie confronted society's norms. She loved and married James Austin, a black man, long before it was socially acceptable. She wore pants. She used curse words. She partied. And you knew what she thought of you. She lived by her own standards. And she loved her family. Of that, there was never any doubt.

Grandma Nellie was authentic. What you saw is what you got. And what I saw was a fierce, strong woman. A woman who loved without discrimination. A woman who danced. A woman who lived.

Nellie Lee Austin (Aug 28, 1936- Dec 13, 2014) Rest in Peace Grandma. 

 

Hobby: thinking

My 7-year-old daughter self-identified "thinking" as one of her hobbies for a form I was filling out about her. At first I chuckled, but then I wrote it in realizing that "thinking" is one of her hobbies. So much like any proud mommy sharing products from her child's hobbies, here are some of my favorite of her "thoughts":

 -One day when she was about 5, she heard on the radio a news story about someone who had just died. She says to me, "Mommy, if we are all connected, we should have a funeral for that person." Huh. I was a bit worried about the logistics of that request, so I said, "well, we are all connected and that is a beautiful idea, but unfortunately too many people die a day for us to have a funeral for everyone. How about we have a moment of silence for all of them before bed time?" This was acceptable to my thinker. That night we started the practice. I said, "and now we will have a moment of silence for all those that died today. We are thankful for all the ways our lives have been made better by the people who came before." My thinker adds, "Yes. Like Abraham Lincoln." To which I say, "yes, like Abraham Lincoln and members of our own family who have passed on but whose lives touched ours." She gets the last words in, "but mostly Abraham Lincoln." :) 

-One day not too long ago, my thinker was playing "house" with her best friend. They both wanted to be the mom of the baby. A potential landmine of conflict...but my thinker saves the day,
"I know, we can be gay." -my daughter
"What's gay?" -friend
"You know, when someone has two mommies or two daddies."
"Oh, yeah, right. Sounds good." 
And so the age old question of who gets to be the mommy was solved. I promise you that thought would have never occurred to me as a child. But then my hobby wasn't thinking... 
(and if you are wondering what the friend's mom thought about this- the girls were actually playing at her house, and she was equally proud of their problem solving. She's cool like that.) 

-Back in the summer of 2013, my thinker carried a Slinky named Michelle around with her everywhere. One day on the way to a party, she asked, "what if someone has a toy with them cooler than mine?" I started to answer with some wise words about sharing or jealousy, but before I could get any words out, she chuckled and said, "I'm just kidding. What could be cooler than a slinky?" 

- August 2012 new kindergarten thinker's homework was to "draw 3 objects." She drew a mudpie, onion grass in a sink, and the big red chicken from Dora. When I asked her why those 3 objects, she said "I thought they would be interesting choices." Indeed. 

And finally for my visual thinker friends, I am going to share a few photos of her costume choices through the years. Because she can never just dress up like a simple character. That's not how thinker's think... 

 While some toddlers choose to be Cinderella, she created "Fairy Princess Meow"

While some toddlers choose to be Cinderella, she created "Fairy Princess Meow"

 At a spaced themed party with her friend Buzz. She chose to go dressed as a black hole.

At a spaced themed party with her friend Buzz. She chose to go dressed as a black hole.

 Most recent Halloween costume. She chose a Doc McStuffin's costume off the rack. Then she added accessories from home- result: Doc McStuffins dressed like a cowgirl.

Most recent Halloween costume. She chose a Doc McStuffin's costume off the rack. Then she added accessories from home- result: Doc McStuffins dressed like a cowgirl.

I have no doubt one day this "thinking hobby" or hers will transform the world. So stay tuned for that. And for more from this one random angel...

 

Turning Pistols into Crystals...

There's a story I sometimes tell left over from my days as a summer camp counselor many, many years ago. About a villain named Poncho Villa and the punch line involves puke. Probably all the details you need to know right now...

And even though she had only heard it a few times, and always in a group setting, my then 4-year-old told the whole story in a way eerily similar to how I tell it using my exact phrasings, intonations and facial expressions. Except she unknowingly changed one key detail.

Every place in the story I had used *pistol* my daughter used the word *crystal* instead. As in, "He said, give me the gold. What could I do? He had crystal, I had nothing, so I gave him the gold." A turning point in the story is when the *pistol* flies out of the villain's hand and the narrator retrieves it. Again, my daughter referred to it as a crystal.

I like the story much better with the magic crystal. Which I can only assume shoots fire or something equally imposing. Although maybe it just makes one dance like a chicken non-stop. That might be a big enough threat to hand over the gold...

But aside from just entertaining me, her retelling got me thinking. She had clearly imagined a *crystal* as opposed to a *pistol* when she heard the story. A much more politically correct weapon really. And I remembered that when I had told it recently, it had crossed my mind whether telling a story involving an armed robbery with a pistol was even appropriate. (Not to mention that it involves eating puke). But I told it because it's a funny story. And I wanted to make the children laugh. And as it turns out, if a child has no context to understand an armed robbery, or doesn't know what a pistol is, then they are likely to just make the details fit what they do know and understand. And if they happen to like Dora, that might involve a crystal.

Sometimes as parents we stress over many small details. We want to make sure everything is appropriate all the time. And we want to create magical moments and memories. My then 7-year-old one fall break said her favorite part of our Grand Canyon trip was the hot chocolate. Awesome. Glad we spent all that money to fly across the country for hot chocolate.

Now, I'm not saying we stop taking trips or trying hard to stage appropriate fun for our children, but I am saying we can relax a little while we're doing it. Not worry so much about every detail and word. Because if we interact with our children with an open heart and simple motives (like trying to make them laugh) they will provide the magic that makes it perfect. They will transform the pistols into crystals...