One night, as my cousins and I were driving back to their place in Fairview, we started talking about our childhood summer vacations, how my younger brother and I would spend our summers at their place, and vice versa. We would share stories and laugh about our young misfortunes and antics. As I played back my childhood memories, I started reminiscing about the time when we kept our niece’s identity secret from her.
We were all very young, and she didn’t know that her mother was our cousin. She was raised by one of our titas. Her real mother got pregnant young and didn’t think she could bear the heavy responsibilities of motherhood, so she turned over the role to our tita. She was there as my niece grew up, but didn’t really get to step into the role up until she was ready to be a mother.
We knew this family drama and were told not to tell our niece/cousin because it wasn’t our place. Presently, she’s well aware of who her real mom is, and we just laugh when we look back at those times. However, what shocked me throughout our visit down memory lane is how this was all still fresh news to my younger brother. He exclaimed, “What? She’s not our cousin?!”
We still don’t talk about it until today, and we’re not the kind of family that talks about our family history over dinner.
There are sensitive topics about our family, and it feels taboo to ask questions about it. When you do, you get a hushed scolding. However, as our parents, titos, and titas age, I think it’s important to get as many stories as we can from them, not only to know about their lives, but also to pass down to future generations.
As I was daydreaming about what my ancestors were like, I thought, why don’t I just start documenting my family history now? Instead of wondering about the past, shouldn’t I be focusing on the present?
I get to bond with my relatives during special occasions, but I don’t know who they were before I came into the picture. Aside from my close cousins, I don’t know who my relatives are as people. We make small talk, exchange gifts, and send prayer chains, but do I really know who they are? I wanted to end this state of not knowing, so I took it upon myself to make a family tree.
You might be thinking that making a family tree is an easy grade school project you can do in an afternoon — for your family that may be the case, but my family is huge and complicated. I have three grandfathers on my mother’s side and a grandcousin.
In making my family tree, I started with the basics. I had to tape two to three sheets of bond paper together to fit in the flow chart of my first cousins. I also had to put question marks next to relatives I didn’t know the names of, like my first grandfather from my mother’s side or my cousin’s fiancée from the US.
After establishing the framework of the family I know, I asked my dad about his cousins. Even he had a hard time recalling them and kept jumbling their names. I found out that my grandmother from his side is an orphan, which led me to a dead end on her part. He told me that most of his cousins are in the States now, but some are in Ilocos.
He also told me stories about provincial life, like how he and his friends helped carry a halo-halo vendor’s items just to get a reward of dessert afterward. There are also stories about how our neighborhood looked like when he was young. He knew almost every kid and family on the block. I realized that my father’s stories of him being connected with his community during his early days shaped him, made it easier for him to communicate with all sorts of people. He doesn’t just say “hi” to our regular taho vendor; he also knows how his children are doing.
Tracing our connection to certain relatives sparked small conversations within the family. I found out that my mom used to bring stray cats home when she was young. She took home so many stray cats that my grandmother threw some of them away, which devastated my mother. This story might explain why I’m such a cat person.
I also found out how one of my uncles was best friends with my other uncle, which led him to meet my aunt. They also told me stories of how they used to flirt and how my uncle would drop by their house to “hang out” with my other uncle, but really just to see my aunt.
With these family stories unfolding, I felt enlightened. I felt like I was slowly uncovering our ancestry, building a legacy, and somehow, learning more about myself. As we’re growing older, it feels like my aunts and uncles are getting more comfortable in sharing their stories as we’re not little kids anymore that wouldn’t understand. With this project, I felt like I could ask them questions, and they would give me proper answers instead of scolding me.
Beyond making a family tree, I want to get to know my relatives and document who they are. I don’t want to live a life not knowing who my tito is beyond someone who I mano every now and then. I want to know stories like how he and my tita eloped and about our far relatives from Bicol. I want to know what makes us a family. How did we get here? These stories are a unique way to help me learn more about myself. Without it, there are parts of me I wouldn’t be able to discover. It brings me great comfort that there’s something that connects us deeper than our familial titles.
With quarantine keeping families apart, I want to use this project as a way to bring my family together. Until now, my family tree is still in the works. There is still so much more to know about, but there are stories better heard in person. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I hope this is the beginning of a better and more open relationship.
Banner by Joshua Tolentino