Context

Each Friday, I go around our largeish co op goggling at all the families as we frantically scurry from one side of campus to another. No one else seems struck in the same way, by the children I know on sight as belonging to one mom or another, by the four sisters who match like matroyshka dolls, by the large and small packs making their way across the crowded hall, streaming half-dried art projects and unrolling lunch bags.

I am struck, mostly, by how much context this kind of environment provides. I know a first grader in one class has a new baby at home, because I know his mom, and because his little brother is in Pip’s class. There’s another first grader whose first name I continually forget, but I can never forget his gentle mother, who helped me in the nursery last year. And it goes the other way, too: the little frisson of excitement when I’m talking to a mother for the first time and suddenly realize I taught her fourth grader paper marbling this morning.

Contemporary American culture doesn’t usually provide this kind of context anymore, does it? In grad school, I had a friend who differentiated between her “little brother” (still a teenager) and her “secret brother” (also younger, but no longer living in state), until, upon eventually meeting them both, we could differentiate them with ease in her stories. I remember also the surreality of attending a friend’s wedding in college, two years into our friendship, and only then meeting her identical twin. We mostly drift around isolated from our family context, don’t we?

People make so much more sense when you know the whole family and a part of the history that has shaped them. But now we have the freedom to share or not share that kind of knowledge with most of the people we meet. J was advised not to disclose his family status on job interviews, even though that status shapes who he is deeply. I can often be a ways into friendship before a new friend meets my sister — we haven’t lived in the same state since 2004. But the ways we are so alike and so dramatically different offer great insight into who I am — and who she is, too, of course.

The people who share your last name or your nose end up having a lot to do with who you are, and in the past, that context would have been inescapable, for better or worse. The Pyes of Avonlea, after all, will never be anything but Pyes. But would Elizabeth Bennet have been anything like the woman she becomes if she weren’t crammed into a house with four sisters and a desperate mother?

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They are growing into who they are because of who they’re growing up with, right? Photo by Be Thou My Vision Photography

The Ugandan tribe with whom we lived use birth order names as part of their name structure — so, for instance, my children are Mumbere Thomas (firstborn son, all grandparents living at the time of his birth), Muhindo Eleanor (the one who changes the gender of the babies), and Biira Elizabeth (second daughter). It was a difficult convention to adjust to, but now I can see the wisdom. There is actually a lot to be gleaned from learning upon meeting Scout that she is the oldest girl with a big brother, or that Roo has one big sister. We are who we are in a family context, and at co-op, I’m awed and grateful for the big picture.

10 thoughts on “Context

  1. this photo is pure gold. holy smokes!

    On Mon, Oct 15, 2018 at 9:41 AM Leave in the Leaf wrote:

    > Katherine Grimm Bowers posted: “Each Friday, I go around our largeish co > op goggling at all the families as we frantically scurry from one side of > campus to another. No one else seems struck in the same way, by the > children I know on sight as belonging to one mom or another, by the four” >

    Like

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