The Art of Family

Pass the Child, Please
by Natalie Edwards

My mother once explained why our heavy pearl-handled silver and embossed linens were marked with an elaborate S and it was not as I thought. The S did not stand for Sawyer, her mother's married name, but for Streetor, the married name of her great aunt Rhoda Sencabaugh, the relative who had mothered my grandmother Laura when her mother died young. Or perhaps it was for Sencabaugh?

The Sencabaughs were well off. The family story is that John D. Rockefeller, a pal, tried to get John D. Sencabaugh to join him in his endeavors to become fabulously wealthy, as he bankrupted competing garage stations all over Cleveland, but that my ancestor John D. found himself too moral to succumb to the goals of unfettered capitalism, and, with a background in theology, reverted to the church.

He didn't live with my devout grandmother, though, but I know little of all that. All we know is that another member of her extended family brought her up. And that is really what I am concerned with here.

There may be generations of Sawyers and Sencabaughs, all coming from England, who tended each other's children. Both sides of my family engaged in this practice. It was the solution for children "left over" because of the death or illness of a relative, and no doubt was found convenient when adolescents looked like they would benefit from a change of scene. It is a good scheme if you are concerned about the maintenance of the family DNA. It is also a good scheme if you like yourself well enough to tolerate your closest relatives, especially those rather like you.

I like most of mine, and I adore my cousins Pat and Nan. As far as I was concerned, my uncle Corydon, the artist, and my aunt Thelma, my dad's youngest sister, were the perfect parents. He designed and made a toy train big enough for seven-year-old children to sit in and propel themselves around the block. She kept a parrot, and laughed at its antics when it mimicked her. They seemed happy and sophisticated. There was a grand piano in the drawing room, they had a maid in the kitchen, and they grinned at each other's stories. I thought Patricia, Nan, and Whit were the luckiest of kids.

When I was nine, however, my cousin Pat came to live with us and attend the University of Saskatchewan. My aunt and uncle claimed they couldn't handle her any more. She was unmanageable, they said, and about to get into trouble, so they packed her north to the vast and empty land of Saskatchewan, where it was hardly conceivable she could find any trouble to get into.

I gladly shared my bedroom with her, watched with fascination as she applied makeup, did her hair, and solemnly addressed herself in the mirror. She was a beauty, six-foot-one, blond, statuesque, with a warm, musical voice and all the confidence in the world.

Unmanageable. What a thought. But my parents seemed to be able to manage her all right, and although she was not considered a good student by them, she was encouraged in her talents, acted in the university plays to great acclaim, and provided a role model for me as someone who loved life, laughed, told jokes, and wasn't afraid of my father. She also worked for the student paper, where she met an Irishman whom she took home and married.

You can get into trouble anywhere.

My time came when my parents went to Egypt for a year, and declining their invitation to join them, I was sent to my mother's sister Ruth. At nineteen, I was considered too young to be on my own. I expect they thought life with my devout aunt would be a safe haven for a girl throbbing with overactive hormones and radical ideas.

I argued politics with my Republican uncle and discussed family history with my aunt. I learned that my clever mother was resented by her sisters, the fraternal twins Ruth and Esther. (Fraternal seems odd for sisters but there is no equivalent word from a feminine root, and sororital sounds like a gum disease.) My mother had studied library science at the Pratt Institute in New York, and returned with an education, found a job, and considered herself above housework. Her sisters were stuck peeling potatoes, cleaning house, and washing the clothes.

My husband and I also disposed of a couple of our adolescents during the time when life with us seemed too painful for them. We left our son Rhys in Quebec city on his own at age twenty, and he managed to find work, become bilingual, and get mono, all in six months. A few years ago, Rhys reluctantly followed this pattern and let his fourteen-year-old daughter Caitlin go to live with his sister Liz in Quebec for a year.

In nature, among the whales and elephants, and in the simian world, aunts and big sisters and grandmothers are very important. The females bond with each other. Among the apes, I believe, the young males have to leave as soon as (or perhaps just before) they become sexually active. If this is the simian way of avoiding incest, it seems to work. As for the young, all the females take an active interest in their upbringing, although the mother appears to act a little possessively if anyone starts carting off her latest baby. It seems a good method: built-in baby-sitters, lots of company, and a good group of hearty females around in case of trouble. Humans apparently lived like this too once, before males decided they wanted to particularize who got their weapons and beads. And keep track of their DNA.

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