One Christmas, I drew my mother’s family tree as a present for her six brothers and sisters. The lines crossing across the poster board slowly began to weave the story of my family. I marked births. I marked funerals. I marked weddings. I marked divorces.
Like most families, the Shelton clan has had its ups and downs. There were times I felt like the lines connecting us would break, but even weakened lines grew bold when called upon to help in times of trouble. There was one defining truth staring up from the page: none of us were alone.
I grew up knowing that I am a small part of a larger social network, although not in those terms. After my parents divorced, my mom and I lived with my Aunt Nellie and Uncle Clint for a few years. Our house was sandwiched between my cousins on one side and my Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Becky on the other. I had another aunt and uncle that lived down the road. Most of my family, in fact, lived within biking distance.
Sometimes I found this familial closeness annoying. Looking back, however, I know how blessed I was to have these experiences. There was nothing that better prepared me to be a contributing member of society than first learning how I fit within my family.
Manners, and the respect they show others, were some of the first lessons I learned as a child. I’ll never forget my Aunt Nellie’s horror when, at 5 years old, I couldn’t hold my fork correctly at a family dinner.
The next day she marched into the living room, turned off Barney, and asked me to join her at the table. No child in our family would have improper table manners, she declared.
At the table, she’d laid out a formal place setting. She lectured about the differences in a salad fork and a dinner fork while I practiced using the cutlery for different types of foods.
I don’t remember how long we sat at the table, but I do remember Aunt Nellie made such mundane things fascinating. I was riveted. I also remember my Aunt’s most important lesson that day: my behavior reflected on more than myself.
In a world focused on the individual, my family taught me that the things I said and did represented the way I was raised, the values I’d been taught, and the respect or lack of respect I had for other people. This was a lesson that repeated itself throughout my life.
Sometimes making the right choice was inconvenient or didn’t benefit me. Like most children, I’d often drag my feet when making one of these harder choices. My mother, however, always seemed to glide right through them.
I asked her once how she did it, and she said, “It’s not inconvenient if it means caring for each other.”
Many in my family are quick to act when there is someone in need. My aunts cook meals for the sick. My cousins volunteer to help with weddings and graduations. Several people have even coordinated funerals or given up parts of their home so the grieving can focus on saying goodbye. I’ll personally never forget the army of aunts and cousins that showed up at my first house with brooms, bleach and paint to turn that little yellow cottage into a home.
During this pandemic, my family has banded together to protect our most vulnerable. We wear masks almost religiously, make errand runs, and, most importantly, we found ways to stay connected. I’ve spoken to my cousins more in the last few months than we have in years. While we often disagree with the politics surrounding the pandemic, we put those differences aside in favor of caring for each other as the world around us changes.
When I originally decided to write about community responsibility, I planned to talk about my time living abroad, but it didn’t seem right to look beyond our borders at this time. The United States is in a period of growth. The pandemic, social movements, and coming elections will all play a part in shaping our national identity.
Before we learn from other countries, I firmly believe we must learn from our past, so I looked at my own. There in the memories of my family, I found that we Americans were already rooted in the idea of community.
Just like my family tree connects a hundred individuals into a larger story, branches of our community connect each of us, reminding us that we are truly never alone. Maybe it’s time that we all look back at our pasts to find these connections and value each other once more.
Ame T. Posey is a correspondent for The Pine Belt News.