On any given Saturday or Sunday when I was a young boy who counted his age in single digits and fractions, my father would pile me and my mother in the car and take us to visit a relative I had no idea how we were related to. “We’re going to go see [insert Aunt and Uncle here].” A phone call may or may not have preceded one of these jaunts over hill and dale to some nondescript house on the outskirts of Rochester in western New York in the 1970s. All I know is that anyone even close to my age usually made themselves scarce during these visits leaving me resigned to an afternoon of boredom rivaled only by Sunday evenings tormented by Lawrence Welk and the cast of 60 Minutes at my Aunt Carole’s house.
I’m not talking about those regular visits to my dad’s aforementioned sister’s house in Scottsville or to my grandmother’s brother Bob’s house in Henrietta. I had seven cousins in reasonable proximity to my age to play with during those house calls. And I am not talking about visits to see children, parents, or grandparents living out of state. No, I am talking about the random excursions to see people my parents barely knew.
The family tree had no meaning for me then. I’ve become the keeper of it now even though I was adopted and have since discovered some of my biological relatives. My father was bloody awful when it came to explaining how you were related to anyone, and if he did explain it, I have long forgotten those genealogy lessons. My mom was Korean, so there was no tree to explore there at the time, at least not one that had any names. I know now how I was related to the people we schlepped to see even though the memories all blur together in a malaise of uncomfortable furniture, unfriendly dogs, and candy dishes filled to the brim with dusty “mints” that chewed like antacids and tasted like stale toothpaste they don’t make anymore.
If you spend any time on social media, Facebook, in particular, you’ll see that there is a movement afoot among younger generations to disavow toxic relatives, eschew societal and familial norms, and create their own versions of what they define as “family.” Gone are the days of accepting people just because you’re related to them and chalking up their bad or toxic behavior to idiosyncrasies and eccentricities and waving them away. Younger people are more independent and left to their own devices and proclivities these days whereas my generation didn’t have a choice.
[This blog has some great statistics on the practice of visiting relatives: https://www.areavibes.com/library/visiting-family/]
As the decades have passed, fewer people attend church on Sunday, kids are busier than ever with sports and other extracurricular activities. We thought we were go-go-go in the 1970s and 1980s. Today’s kids don’t have time to sit down for five minutes and then it’s off to soccer, baseball, martial arts, and God knows what else (if they’re not strapped to a gaming chair for hours on end). My generation, Gen X, is the “whatever” generation. Hell, half the time when some news organization makes a graphic or a meme surfaces discussing the major living generations, Gen X is left off, and we’re okay with that. But we’re also the generation that got dragged to see these random relations and the generation of we’re not gonna do what our parents used to make us do.
All of these things got me thinking. Does anyone go “visiting” anymore? And again, I am not talking about your annual Turkey Bowl with the usual suspects on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve at grandma and grandpa’s, I’m talking about the impromptu trips to the far-flung twigs of the family tree. Before I could go off half-cocked on this topic like I did when I erroneously reported the premature death of the American picnic, I thought I would do some actual research. I had a long Facebook messenger talk with my cousin Brenna who is in her early 20s, and I threw the question out to a Gen X group I belong to on Facebook. The answers I got back surprised me. They were all over the place, as individual as the people who answered my query.
Some people had become the ones who received visitors, some still went visiting as they did as children, for others the practice died when certain relatives did, some said their loved ones lived too far away or that they had moved too far away, some became antisocial hermits in their old age, while still others held fast to seeing the same folks every year for the holidays. Some are just too busy. As for Brenna … she is split down the middle between two schools of thought.
“I have such strong family values and going to see family still is really important to me. I always loved when family came over or when we went to go see family growing up, so when I got older and was able to drive myself places I was SO excited to go see my grandparents and meet my cousins and aunts/uncles for lunch/dinner/coffee and such. They would ALWAYS make a comment about how I’m the only grandchild that visits,” Brenna said. “I’m very much at a point where I don’t go to family functions that I don’t want to. If a specific person is too toxic or something and I know I won’t enjoy the event I’ll just skip it.”
I had really thought the practice was dead. I guess I was wrong. Maybe because I left home at 18 and haven’t really spent much time in my hometown since, maybe because as a kid I hated those car trips and boring, lazy weekend afternoons playing with my own toys on some musty old throw rug while listening to my parents swap stories with relatives they hadn’t seen since the last funeral, maybe because I thought I couldn’t be the only member of my generation who felt this way, it had to be an extinct facet of family life.
I had another thought while I was contemplating all of this. What about those of us who left and really never went back, not in any meaningful way anyway? I think it’s a longer discussion, but what I will say is if you ever do leave home, don’t expect anyone other than your immediate family, and a few very close friends, to ever come to visit. You find out very quickly how much you actually mean to people when you relocate a significant distance from your hometown. It’s a strange phenomenon. You are always expected to go home. But when you invite people from home to come to visit, the dog seems to have eaten their homework. I was fortunate to travel for work for the better part of 20 years and I had the opportunity to meet up with cousins and friends in cities across the country. And as an only child, and as I get older, my very tight circle of friends is more family now. But, when I had the chance to go to London in 2014, I made it point to visit my cousin Judith.
Thomas Wolfe famously titled a novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, and there seems to be more than a modicum of truth to that, I have found that so much has changed in my hometown that it’s nothing like I remember in some regards, yet some things have remained eerily the same.
And that seems to be the case in many regards with my brief exploration into this topic. The more things change, the more they stay the same, meaning I’m sure there were just as many people 40 years ago who went visiting, those who didn’t, those who were made to, and those who weren’t. I just think fewer kids are dragged off to places they don’t want to go to see people they don’t know, and that’s okay by me.