My grandfather is James Blanton. He is my only remaining grandparent. He is 89 years old, and he is dying.
I recently visited my grandfather at the nursing home where he lives in Michigan. His body is dissolving, his comforts are dismantling, yet is mind and memory are quite sharp.
During my visit to the Midwest, I read a best-selling book called “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016) by author J.D. Vance. It is a memoir of a young man’s life growing up in the Midwest, and his experience of childhood and his hillbilly roots. Without giving too much away (or boring you), I learned after WWII there was a massive migration of industrial factory workers from areas in Appalachia, such as poor communities in Kentucky, to regions of the Midwest. The book gave a lens into a way of living for working class whites that I was unaware of, and yet more intimately connected to than I realized.
I cannot directly relate to the “hillbilly” lifestyle. But I learned my mother’s childhood was parallel in some ways. My grandfather left Kentucky as a young man. He grew up poor. He worked long and hard to provide for his family. He fell into patterns of addiction and stress. His children have varying degrees of closeness and connection to each other, as do their individual families to the larger extended family.
I grew up middle class, also in the Midwest. I had access to good schools, extra-curricular activities inside and outside of school, and a strong community of friends. I did not grow up living near my extended family, although we visited regularly.
During my recent trip home to Wisconsin and Michigan to visit my family, I read this book, from which I had a lens to look at human relationships, something I am fascinated by.
Within each generation, there are values and patterns that are passed down to the next generation. If done so consciously, the good can be continued, and the harmful can be healed. Of course, there are mistakes made (we are human!), and I’m learning the value in forgiving the mistakes and the importance of understanding the lineage of my family.
The values my family line holds were valued for a reason. These values include loyalty, desire for future generations to have access to a better way of life than the current generation, a commitment to family, and a high respect and value of education.
I am experiencing a mild cognitive dissonance. There is a love my family provides to me that is unmatched by anyone else. They have known me my entire life, we share genes and a family history that I don’t share with friends. Likewise, I chose to leave the Midwest, to pursue my desire for a different way of life, to be surrounded by like-minded, similar life-style individuals. My life on the West Coast has allowed me to thrive, something I felt I wouldn’t do the same way in the Midwest. I had to give up some of the family ties in order to move far away. I can relate to the struggle Appalachia migrants encountered by moving away from their roots in order to create a new life.
In this country, whose population is largely immigrants, whose grandparents’ culture and ethnic roots spread far and wide, I’ve felt lost at times to know any values of my ancestors that I would like to carry forward. Reading this book, speaking with my mother and taking a more inquisitive look at my family has given me insight into the honorable ideals that my family holds.
A culture is created by social norms that are consciously or unconsciously replicated. As humans, we learn to be human by mimicking those who surrounded us. As we become adults we can choose to continue some of the cultural and behavioral norms or to create new ones.
In a time in history where we can move almost anywhere, and become whomever we’d like to be, why is it important to maintain the link to our relatives and what they have deemed important? What is the value of continuing the thread through generations? It allows us to stay connected. This connection is something I can foster with the generations to come, to embody the positive attributes of my hard-working lineage and instill in those I care for, and request from those I choose to be around.
In this “melting pot”, we can sometimes become judgmental of those who are different. And I’m learning to respect the differences even more because those patterns and habits have remained for a reason. And if I’m struggling to see or understand the value of a behavior pattern, I can ask how it is serving someone (or a group).
I’ve heard so many times that we are “creating a new paradigm” – I believe it, and I’m grateful. AND I see the value is honoring pieces of the “old paradigm” that have value. A strong commitment to community, the hard work and dedication required to provide a comfortable life for your loved ones, and the loyalty –which requires forgiveness– to remain in relationship with people who have hurt us, whether on purpose or not.
Respect, Inquiry, and Forgiveness are essential to continue to relate to others for many years. Because we will mess up, we will unintentionally hurt others. And with awareness perhaps this can happen less often.
What do you want to carry forward? What do you need to forgive? What do you want to do differently?
- What are some of the values you know your family lineage has honored?
- Do you choose to embody the positives?
- What are you actively doing to heal the harmful behavior that you recognize doesn’t serve anymore?
- How do you honor your ancestors and their roots?