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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley


What makes one family a clan and another family a loosely connected network of households–if they even know each other? Is it simply a function of a mutual effort and willingness to communicate? Is it the comradery of shared experience and close proximity? Or is it a social and cultural phenomenon doomed to obsolescence in the developed world and relegation to isolated pockets of ethnic homogeneity? I'm not a sociologist and I'm not even going to pretend to answer these questions on behalf of anyone else's family. I am going to reflect on them in the case of my own family.

The author as an infant with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Edith.

Generations of strong women have shaped our family dynamics, influenced relationships, and purposefully preserved family memory.

Catherine Roush Menges (1791-1869) memorialized her family of origin in her son's middle name. Elias Roush Menges (1816-1892) was my 3rd great-grandfather. Catherine also ensured that her granddaughter, Amelia Matilde, learned German from the family Bible before Elias moved Amelia and the rest of the family to Indiana.

Henrietta Zeigler Menges (1814-1895), Elias's wife, insisted that her wayward daughter Anna Maria bring her illegitimate baby home to Indiana after she gave birth in a tent in Enid, Oklahoma shortly after the Cherokee Strip land rush.

Anna Maria Menges (1856-1916) may have made many mistakes in her relationships with men, but she was completely devoted to her sister Amelia and daughter, Edith Mae Menges. It was Anna Maria's determination that enabled the three women to keep the family farm supporting them without much help from the two sisters' brothers.

Amelia Matilde Menges (1850-1934) never married or had children of her own, but she was a surrogate mother to Edith and the only maternal grandmother figure Edith's children knew. As such, she was a vital member of the household and the source of family lore.

Edith Mae Menges Morris (1893-1994) suffered dearly, not only from her mother's mistakes, but also her husband's, not to mention circumstances beyond anyone's control, including the Great Depression and the deaths of two children. But she outlived all of the tragedies and became the treasured grandma of her grandchildren and affectionate G.G. to her great-grandchildren. As a lonely only child she taught her children to value sibling relationships. Edith also rose above the prejudice of her extended family engendered by her illegitimate birth. Cousins became lifelong friends who visited each other frequently.

But what was it that tied her children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren into a close-knit family?

Proximity? In part. Daughters Lois and Ruth married two men who were first cousins and lived much of their adult lives as nearly next door neighbors. But their older sister, Arlene, moved away, living half her life in Wyoming and Georgia. And still all three sisters remained close friends with each other.

Shared experience? Certainly the extreme poverty Edith's children experienced growing up during the Great Depression created indelible memories and fodder for endless stories. And yet, extreme poverty was a temporary condition with limited effect on future generations, not a family legacy.

Longevity? This certainly played a role. Edith lived past her 100th birthday. She remained a gathering point for far-flung family members who otherwise may not have kept in contact with each other.

Family narrative? I maintain that Edith's storytelling played a greater role than anyone realizes. The matriarch who never knew her father, had no siblings, and lost her mother prematurely was passionate about making sure her descendants knew their family heritage. The stories passed from aunt to niece to daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters vividly recreated our family's Pennsylvania German Lutheran ancestry in everyone's minds. So much so, that this heritage outshone other branches of the family. What a surprise then when DNA ethnicity profiles began to suggest a much less western European biological heritage than expected. (Read more about my discoveries in Surprising DNA.)

The fact is that our family is very culturally diverse when all of the paternal lines are considered, but family memory is very narrow. Thanks to Edith's stories we are more aware of our maternal German-American heritage. It is a tradition passed from woman to woman for generations. It is the narrative through which Edith's values were transmitted to three new generations.

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