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How we relate

April 29th, 2004 · 1 Comment

Last night when the power was out, after the girls went to sleep, I asked Ted: “What are we going to do here in the dark all night…?”

Ah, then I realized I could read the booklet about Ralph Waldo Emerson and his children that had been waiting in my reading pile. So I grabbed the slim stapled volume and headed for the couch and candles.

I must explain first why a booklet about Ralph Waldo Emerson and his children is in my pile.

The explanation comes from my own children – and my own parents….The girls wanted to learn more about our country’s history so – in search of tangible and personal connections – I sorted through a pile of mementos I had collected from my travels. There I discovered two booklets about Emerson that I must have bought when exploring New England with my mom years ago.

Ralph Waldo Emerson appears in my family tree. It was our family’s claim to fame – or so we thought as kids – that we were related to the famous philosopher and author. However, recent genealogical research done by one of my siblings revealed that there was more than one “Ralph Waldo Emerson”. It makes sense. My own descendants will discover that there were plenty of “Julie Leung”s alive at the same time I was. However it was a bit disappointing. Learning the names of his children has convinced me that the man in our family tree is not the same one I am reading in the book.

But I am still enjoying the booklet. After the first couple pages I was hooked. It wasn’t the writing style, which would be less than captivating by our standards today. No intrigue or mystery promised in the introduction or teasing first paragraph.

The booklet titled Emerson and His Children: Their Childhood Memories is a 1980 Harvard Library Bulletin (Volume XXVIII, Number 4, closest link to it I can find is here) and begins with daughter Ellen’s memories of her father. She described how they would walk over the hills and Emerson would hold their hands and tell them the name of every flower.

What caught me and captivated me were her details – little words here and there – that illustrated her relationship with her father. How they had a certain vocabulary shared together: “Professor of Walking” when they went on long walks. “Good wine needs no bush” came from their time spent picking and tasting plums together. Ellen would ask her father questions and he would provide answers, getting out the dictionary. “One of the great pleasures” was going down to the brook with Emerson: he would throw stones and the children would enjoy the splashing.

It reminded me of my own memories with my dad. How we had our own habits and vocabulary such as Slurpee Run. I remember playing dictionary games with my father. He once said a sentence about a pachyderm contemplating its navel (or something approximating this phrase) and that was the day I learned the meaning of those words ( and the difference between “navel”/”naval”) while flipping to find the definitions. And I too enjoyed watching my dad throw stones into water. I was amazed to see how he could skip stones across a stream. The circles. The splashes. To this day, even as a grownup myself, I don’t think I could do what he did. He was amazing.

While reading these first few pages, I started to think about what it is that makes an affectionate relationship. There’s a culture that’s created between two or more people. It has its own words, its own language, its own secrets and signs. Nicknames. Abbreviations. Jokes. History. There are activities that are shared. Sometimes a spectacular occurance or several extravagant celebrations, but often I think it is the daily routines that do it. Like picking plums or walking down hills. Identifying flowers. Skipping stones. The way you eat bread as a family at dinner. Silly songs you sing during bathtime. Bedtime routines. Little rituals and words that make relationship.

When I think about the relationships in my life that have been the most intense and intimate, the most passionate and affectionate, what comes to mind is the culture we created. In my own family now with Ted and our daughters, we have our special names, special words and special things we do together. Instead of picking plums like the Emersons, we pick peas and strawberries from the garden. Ted grilling dinner on the deck has become a little summer tradition. Gymnastics on Saturday morning for the girls and Ted has become another routine(ha!). We read a story together at bedtime, and cuddle before the fireplace on winter nights. Birthday creations are becoming legend and lore: “ hippo cake“. If I say one of the girls’ pet names to them, it has an instant and special meaning. Likewise if I say Ted’s. Or if he says mine.There are words I use only when it is just our family at home, when no one else is around. It’s our own Leung language. It is how we relate.

Reading these recollections about a girl and her father who lived almost two centuries ago, I felt immediate connection. As I saw how they shared routines and ritual, how the ordinary became extraordinary, how he taught and teased her, their familiar phrases and rich routines, I saw my own memories of childhood times spent with my dad.

Perhaps an accurate family tree would tell me that I’m not related to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his children. But I relate to them.

Tags: family

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Lance // Apr 29, 2004 at 6:26 am

    I’m just sorry for Ted that the first thing you thought of (apparently) was reading. And I’m sorry for you that Ted’s first thought was (apparently) his Powerbook.

    With 4 kids, whenever there is a quiet moment (i.e. the kids are not around) my thoughts turn in a more “romantic” direction. Maybe that’s why we have 4 kids? 🙂