Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My Tribe Of Origin

Mom, Dad, me and my brother.

I grew up in a tribe. The nucleus of my tribe was my father and mother and brother but it extended far beyond the four of us.

Mom was one of seven children and Dad one of five. This tribe I was born into included their siblings, their spouses and their children. Being Greek, that also meant the tribe extended to include the cousins of our cousins as well as close friends of my parents.

Imagine a less exaggerated version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and you have a typical gathering of the tribe. Lots of food, music, dancing, laughter, people talking over each other and a love so strong you could almost see it in the air.

According to the definition Seth Godin uses in his seminal book, Tribes, "A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea."

Our connection was our Greek blood lines with roots in the villages of Apidia and Kalamata in the Peloponnese region of Greece and to Crete -  as well as a desire on the part of our immigrant grandparents to keep our ancestral culture strong and alive. 

Seth Godin's definition continues:  " A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate."

When we were young it was easy to communicate. With the exception of one of my mother's brothers, both sides of my tribe lived between Brooklyn and Queens. Family gatherings were not limited to Christmas and Easter, to weddings, christenings and funerals, but were every day occurrences. Someone was in the neighborhood, they stopped by - no appointment or “play date” necessary. Last minute phone calls to see what we were up to and if we could come over for dinner were welcomed and not seen as an intrusion. 

Community and the idea of tribes were not trendy words reserved for marketing circles with the underlying intention of how we will make money. They were organic at a time, no one used that word to describe customer growth or the kind of vegetables they bought. 

It was just about family. 

The belief of my tribe was that in the end, there is no substitution for the connection of family - those people who get who you are with just a look in your eyes, who tell you what they think when you are not asking, and who will love you and stand by you no matter how many mistakes you make.

That was then and this is now. Lives take flight. People move in different directions. Our families take different forms. Stuff happens. The tribe splinters.

There was a time during my teenage and young adult years when I was okay with that. I wanted to get as far from my core tribe and my Greekness as possible. I was in search of me and I thought that as long as those connections were as strong as they were I was never going to find the person I might be.

Today I cling to them - even as I feel them slipping through my fingers. Today I understand that those connections are the foundation of who I am.

Within the last two weeks, I have lost two aunts. My Aunt Jean was my dad’s youngest sister and the last of his siblings. My Aunt Helen was married to my father’s brother. They were both strong women who loved and respected me and part of the now dwindling “village” of aunts who made their mark on my life.
Aunt Jean holding me at my christening. Aunt Helen looking on.

One of the key tenets of this tribe has always been that no matter how far away our lives get from each other, we all show up to support in these moments. It is not questioned. It just is what our tribe did, what it always did. It was the way we were taught. 

We show up for our parents, our grandparents, for the ancestors that laid the groundwork that took us to today, for each other and for ourselves. The gathering of the "tribe" in their honor reinforces the values they stressed - of family bonds, community, and unconditional love.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks. Yet through it all I found solace in the faces of my extended family who all showed up to pay their respects. Amidst  the hugs, the faded photographs of a world that didn’t include cell phones and computers, the sharing of memories and recollections of moments I had forgotten I felt a sense of being home. I was with my “people”, my original tribe. The ones that remember stories about me or my father or my mother that I don’t. The ones who look at me and still see the young girl who lives inside.

I couldn’t begin to count how many other ‘tribes’ I have been a part of to date. But that tribe - my original tribe is the one that no matter how far away I might get from it, I am always welcomed and always loved.

In the death of my two aunts I’ve experienced so much sadness, it’s difficult to get out from under. The only way I know is to focus on the gratitude I have - for the richness that each contributed to my life and for the “tribe” I was raised as part of that they helped to create. 

The tribe has splintered along the way,  no doubt, but its roots stand strong. They are at the core of who I am today. For that I am forever grateful.

RIP Aunt Jean and Aunt Helen. May your memory be eternal.

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