My wife and I attended one of those birthday parties for a one-year old this past weekend. We are best friends with the infant’s paternal grandmother.
These affairs always verge on the purely comical in a certain respect. To start with, the little one is completely oblivious to the significance of the occasion. The celebration is really for the parents, who are so filled with joy, especially if the child is their first, as this one was. But for the kid, it’s just another day of wonderment, mixed with a fair amount of pooping, sleeping and crying, not necessarily in that order.
Still, as always seems to be the script, the unknowing tyke got all the attention, including having all the presents opened and held before him to admire, as if he was supposed to know that the tiny outfits, many toys, and pop-up books were all for him, let alone that this one was from Aunt Tillie and that one from Uncle Ed (whom he wouldn’t begin to know as an uncle or otherwise for another year or two at the least).
And so we all sat and watched the unwrapping of the gifts and carried on about how cute the little guy was in his one-year-old birthday outfit and how funny it was when he stuck his hand in the birthday cake (my guess was the colors of the icing attracted him) while everyone was singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
But an aspect of this particular birthday celebration got my attention, and as I thought about it, I had a sense of something interesting, perhaps even profound. Or maybe I was just OD-ing on the birthday cake. You be the judge.
As it happens, the father of the child at this party was once (just 24 years ago) in the very same role as his son at another party I attended, that one a celebration by his mother, who then, too, was one of our best friends. And at that party, as at this one, her parents were also in attendance, then the proud grandparents, now the perhaps even prouder great-grandparents.
We are all older now, some 24 years older, to be sure, but back then we were still engaged in the same activities, the same reactions, with the same script played out with many of the same characters (parents, grandparents, “aunts and uncles,” of the biological variety or otherwise), with the little guy sitting in the middle of the whole thing, as oblivious to the occasion as the little one was at the party last Saturday.
It was the generations represented at this party that caught my attention. Four generations of one family, spanning 90 years of human history, were gathered in the same house for the singular occasion of celebrating a one-year old’s birthday.
A form of heritage, the micro form, was on display in that scene, with the great-grandparents perhaps remembering similar scenes from their youth, when they were the parents of the now-grandmother, then just a one-year old herself, destined to become our best friend.
The generations of a family create its heritage and represent its history. In some families, these histories are documented with family trees that show the clan’s progenitors (usually at the top, thus an upside-down tree in a sense), their offspring, and each succeeding generation of offspring.
Inevitably these attempts to document the history of individual families become too complicated, or the history itself too obscure. What is the family historian to do, for instance, with in-laws and their families, especially when, as often occurs, the in-law side of the family carries forward the new family name? And at what point do distant cousins (third, once removed, and who was the father?) no longer bear relevance to the basic tree and its history?
The record-keeping may become difficult and ultimately unmanageable, but the history still exists, and the family heritage, if it could be captured, would be no less profound, as, for example, in the case of the feudal serf who begat pilgrim sons, who in turn begat farmer sons, who begat daughters of the revolution, who begat businessmen, who begat town council leaders, who begat soldiers who fought and died in wars, but not before they begat sons and daughters who honored their sacrifices and became lawyers, doctors, ministers and government workers.
The history of each family, in its own way, reads something like the foregoing, albeit in many instances the specifics are unknown, lost to the ages, as it were.
And so the micro-heritage of human existence is established and re-established with the passing of each generation, with each new-born child from a former new-born child. And this collective experience, this sense of oneness with our ancestors and with our one-day-to-be-born descendants, is what ties families to each other. And it more than justifies the birthday celebrations for the toddling one-year olds, such as my wife and I attended last weekend.
But there is also a macro-heritage in the human experience. This heritage is the one that is represented by the complete history of the human race. The concept, if you can grasp it, is much the same, for even as each family can, theoretically at least, identify a history that establishes that family’s heritage, so, too, can the entire race identify a history that establishes a collective heritage. It is this heritage, this “macro-heritage” that binds us all together.
As Michael Arlen notes emphatically in “Passage to Ararat,” his compelling search for his Armenian heritage, “we were all kin to begin with.”
That thought, that seemingly obvious yet so easily overlooked thought, should create the same reason to celebrate as a race that a family experiences on the arrival of a new generation. We have survived, albeit with no small number of bumps in the road. We have a history, a heritage.
In that heritage, we are united. In that history, all of our pasts are joined.
It’s a small thought, perhaps deserving of no more than a moment’s reflection. But we were all kin to begin with, and we are all kin, still.