The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Unexpected Moments of Connection

Authored by Leslie Ann Fox, M.A.

Recently a friend introduced me to a colleague of his from another state, and suggested that we meet. I asked why, and he said, “I just think you two will have an interesting conversation”. I trust this person, so when his colleague called, we agreed to get together for lunch when she was visiting family in our area. We did indeed have a rich conversation and that evening I wanted to write some of my thoughts to her. The rest of this blog post started as an email to her, but since my grandchildren (and some of my friends) tell me my emails are always way too long, I decided to turn it into a blog for “The Systems Thinker”.

Dear New Friend,

Thank you for sharing some of your family history with me. It always interests me to meet someone that I immediately relate to comfortably, and then discover that our great grandparents had lived their lives in the same part of the world, around the same time in history, and likely had similar cultural experiences during their lives. Such encounters show me that the multi-generational family emotional process as described in Bowen theory goes beyond the individual family lineage to encompass the community or society. Context counts. As curiosity about one’s ancestors has burgeoned in the age of the Internet, more and more people have started taking advantage of exploring past generations of their families. I enjoy hearing stories about the facts people glean through genealogy research, and DNA tests from companies like Ancestry and 23andMe, Inc. These can be useful resources when seeking to better understand the past in order to improve the present and future of one’s family.

Many of us have very limited information available earlier than our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Your trips to Eastern Europe where you found information that was presumed long lost, was an inspiring story of perseverance, commitment and openness to adding facts to family lore. The mystery of your great grandfather’s early death adds to the intrigue around an apparent traumatic event in your personal family history that may be responsible for some chronic anxiety in your generation of the family. Using Bowen theory as a framework for analyzing the newly discovered information acquired during a journey into the past can present an opportunity to begin reducing one’s own anxiety. Doing so in this generation’s nuclear family can benefit future generations as well, at least until some other highly traumatic event might occur.

I understand that you are knowledgeable about Bowen theory and the multi-generational process. Like you, I think the efforts made to learn more about our previous generations is so important that perhaps there is more we can do. I discovered that reading the history of the places and communities in which our ancestors lived their lives can also help reframe our understanding of emotional process in our family. For example, several years ago I came across  The Secret Gift by Ted Gup. It is a compelling narrative about the author’s Jewish grandfather’s life during the Great Depression in Canton, Ohio. I unexpectedly gained new insights into what my parents’ lives were like growing up, even though the book wasn’t about my family. I finally understood what they had really been up against as children and young adults. My mother was only 15 years old in 1933, the year the author is writing about, a very dark time during the depth of the depression. I remember her talking about how she had gone to 7 or 8 different grade schools and high schools as her family had to move many times because of my grandfather’s struggle to make a living. She often talked about how poor they were, and how difficult life was for the family during the depression years.

Many of us heard such stories from our parents when we were young, but in reading this book with much older eyes, and long after my parents had died, I realized I never understood at all what they had gone through growing up. At least I had never fully grasped the emotional aspect of their life experience. The Secret Gift is a fascinating true story of one Jewish family, and the descendants of about 50 Christian families in Canton, told in letters, often written by children and young adults in the winter of 1932-33. Reading those letters and Ted Gup’s vivid narrative about his family’s history was like watching the human-interest stories shown on our modern day nightly local news broadcasts. It was as if I was living in those times. I have never thought about my parents in quite the same way again. Their struggles and their triumphs touch me in a deeper way now; they seem more real, and I think I better understand the roots of their values and principals from reading what people were experiencing during the time that my parents were coming of age. That the stories were communicated through letters by people of that era, in their own words, made them all the more striking.

Another example for me goes back even further, to my great-grandparent’s time. I am currently rereading Tevye’s Daughters by Sholom Aleichem. (It is the book that the play and movie Fiddler on the Roof was based on.) As you probably recall from the play or movie, Tevye was a poor Jewish dairyman, married and raising 5 daughters in a small village, Anatevka, somewhere in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia. In the book’s introduction, the translator, Frances Butwin, describes the story as being more than a “family chronicle whose theme is timeless and never-resolved conflict between younger and older generations”. She points out that “it is the story of social conflict laid at a precise turn of history—the last days of Tsarist Russia…There was widespread political unrest throughout the country, culminating in the revolutionary struggle of 1905-6…”

All four of my grandparents were Jewish, born and raised in small rural villages like Anatevka. These villages were near Kiev and Odessa in Ukraine, which was in the Pale of Settlement, an area where Jewish people were allowed to live and work, while beyond the Pale, they were not. My grandparents emigrated to the United States as young adults in the early 1900s. My late husband was Roman Catholic, raised in a small, rural village in the pampas of Argentina in the 1930’s. He emigrated to the US also as a young adult in the early 1950’s. His parents had emigrated to Argentina around 1919 from a rural village near Kiev. His maternal grandmother was Jewish, which he didn’t learn about until long after we were married. His grandmother, whom he never knew, would have been around the same age as my great-grandparents. I suspect the cultural norms around her marriage to a Christian in that part of the world, in those times, would have been similar to the story of Chava, the dairyman’s daughter who married a local Christian boy, and was rejected by her father, cut off from her family. My husband and I watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof many times, and often wondered if his grandmother’s story was similar to Chava’s. There was no one alive to ask. No family lore on the matter.

Chava’s story also led me to often wonder about our early mutual and unexpected attraction to each other, during which time I had mostly seen the significant differences in our backgrounds. I was often surprised when we discovered we liked the same ethnic foods; our mothers seemed to have similar recipes for dishes that I thought were uniquely Jewish. Did our early attraction and loving life-long relationship have something to do with the similar life experiences of previous generations of our families, all of whom came from the same region of the world, and whom we had never met, and knew little about? I wonder how much alike our family relationships in late 20th and early 21st Century America were to those ancestors who lived and worked 100+ years earlier in a land far away in time and distance, but similar in cultural heritage?

While family emotional process in multi-generational transmission is most significant, the culture in which emotional process plays out is also significant, and passed down through the generations.

I think learning the history of the times in which our ancestors lived enriches our perspectives on family emotional process transmitted over the generations in a family. Context does indeed matter.


Ted Gup:  A Secret Gift:  How One Man’s Kindness, and a Trove of Letters, Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression, Penguin Books; Revised edition, October 25, 2011.

Tevye’s Daughters:  Collected Stories of Sholom Aleichem, Translation and Introduction by Frances Butwin. Sholom Aleichem Family Publications, Robert V. Waife, New York. November 19, 1999.

Leslie Fox

This post was published by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *