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It would be pretty damn hard to till out this tidy Family Tree for my family.
My daughter Carolynne’s husband Rodney Schauer died in his sleep of a massive heart attack early yesterday morning.  He was 34 years old. 
They were married in a beach ceremony last year in Orange County, California where they met and got together before the economic collapse brought them back to the Midwest to look for work.  They settled near Madison, Wisconsin with Carol’s youngest son Randy.  They got jobs, in Carol’s case a very good one, enrolled in the local community college, and were planning an exciting life together.
There were serious bumps on the way.  Carolynne fought a bout with cancer and was injured when her car was rear-ended.  Rodney survived a major heart attack last December.  But they loved each other dearly and thought that they had a lifetime together ahead of them.
Needless to say, Carolynne is devastated.  And my heart breaks right along with her.
Rodney’s death, among other things, caused me to mull on the nature of family—and even on genealogy tracing the histories of our families.  It seems to me that modern families have broken a lot of traditional expectations and with them the neat branches of the convention family tree. 
Take my branch of the Murfin family tree, left precariously dangling by the winds of time and history from Family Line #4 Decedents of Thomas Murfin and Kathleen Leach Murfin in Ed Murfin’s epic ongoing genealogical research on Murfins world wide.
My twin brother and I were born in Twin Bridges, Montana to a single mother on March 17, 1949.  By prior, private arrangement through the delivery doctor we were taken and adopted at birth by Willard Maurice Murfin and Ruby Irene (Mills) Murfin.  They had lost their only natural child in infancy shortly before World War II. 
Now many genealogists would lop off the branch right there with an asterisk noting that we were adopted.  Some will argue passionately that because we do not carry on the Murfin “blood” our decedents should not be traced as part of the family.   
Other experts will acknowledge that because we carry the Murfin surname it is best to keep folks like us listed and our decedents traced if only to distinguish them from “real Murfins”—plug in any family name here.  These family historians will not, however, generally follow female decedents who do not pass down the patriarchal name.
Luckily Cousin Ed took a more broadminded approach.  Perhaps he realized that “blood” or not, my brother and I were shaped by our Murfin heritage—by family yarns and stories, accumulated experience and wisdom passed down, and even those quirks of personality and speech that we pick up not genetically, but by constant exposure.  Tim and I could not be more thoroughly Murfin in this sense than if we were the recipients of a gene transplant.
And then things really get complicated.
In 1981 I married a young widow with two small children.  Carolynne was 8 and Heather was 6.  The oldest had vague memories of her biological father.  The youngest never knew him at all.  For better or worse—and there were many times in their young lives when they would have sworn it was for worse—I was the only father they every really had.  Although I never adopted them and they kept their biological father, Randy Larsen’s, last name they were always “my girls.”  Bringing them up with their mother was the typical roller coaster of moments of intense joy and episodes of stark terror and occasional despair.  Both girls could give me a run for my money and I made multiple parental errors along the way.  But we survived and bonded.  After the worst years of teenage angst, they each even admitted genuine affection for the clumsy old man who did the best he could.
In 1983 our family was rounded out by the birth of my only biological child, Maureen.  Being much younger than her big sisters, they thought she was spoiled.  They may have had a point.  But there was never a doubt that they were all sisters—or my daughters.
So did my failure to formally adopt the oldest two make them less my daughters?  Do their children deserve to be included on an official family roll-call or are they, in the terminology of some genealogists “virtual strangers?”
Like many younger women, my daughters’ lives were “complicated.”  Carolynne married young and gave birth to her first son Nicholas Jordan Bailey in 1990.  The marriage ended shortly after.  She went on to a string of relationships, including another brief marriage before finding Rodney Schauer.  She had two more sons, Joseph Gibson, now 19, and Randy Patrick Larsen, now 13.  For two periods she moved back home with the two oldest boys.  And both of them spent many weekends and holidays and Grandma and Papa’s house.  After Randy was born, she lived in apartments nearby and all of the boys were frequently at our house.
When Carolynne decided to move to California a few years ago, Nicholas did want to leave his friends, so he moved in with us while she took Joseph and Randy west.  Nick is still with us as he closes in on his 21st birthday.  Nick, especially, probably regards our house as his real home.  Although he has a relationship with his father, he only sees him a couple of times a year.  And after the parade of men through his mother’s life, I have been the most stable male in his life—dare I say a surrogate father.  Joey now lives with his Dad and visits us mostly when he needs cash.  I’ve always been Papa to Randy.
So at best Carolynne’s life messes up any tidy family tree.  What kinds of boxes and arrows are needed to explain the relationships?
Of course there were always challenges.  In days of wide spread deaths to communicable disease, when women often had annual childbirth, remarriage and what we now call “blended” families were common.  On farms and on the frontier women were often worked to death and weakened by repeated childbirth.  It was not uncommon for a healthy man to wear out three wives, have children with each, plus the children from later wives’ earlier marriages in his household.  Genealogists often find these relationships hard to unscramble.  Likewise many young men were killed in wars, work accidents, or—not uncommonly—simply abandoned their families for greener pastures elsewhere.  The widows or deserted, these women  had few practical choice but to seek new mates to support them and their children.
And marriage itself was often in the past a much more casual thing than we tend to believe.  The urban poor in Europe and the U.S. were often indifferent to the demands of the church.  Co-habitation was common and self-proclaimed common-law marriage even commoner.  The same often held true in frontier areas where both preachers and civil authorities were scarce.  Generally, if folks claimed to be married, they were taken at their word, but seekers of documentary evidence are often frustrated.
And then there was the very common occurrence of “fostering” the many orphans and foundlings without parents.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even more distant kin often took these children in.  Orphans were also freely given to families who simply wanted an extra pair of hands on the farm.  The foster families may—or may not—have officially adopted them, given them their last names, or treated them as family instead of as burdens or bond servants.
So I guess that a certain messiness in lives and family trees should not be surprising.  Still the modern variants of this familial chaos vexes some of the more prudish genealogists—generally the kind who are most interested in establishing how old, fine, and distinguished their family is.
Meanwhile my brother Tim changed his name to Peter, entered a religious order, and married a wonderful Jewish woman, Arlene.  Their son Ira Samuel Murfin is the last male with a connection to my father and thus the potential bearer of the “line” into the future.  My brother’s daughter Shani Colleen Murfin was born from a long term, but unconsecrated relationship.
My middle daughter Heather has made life simpler.  She married and stayed married to Ken Pearson and they have a wonderful daughter Caitlin.
Maureen, our youngest, was married and divorced within a year—and no, she doesn’t want to talk about it—and has resumed her maiden name.  She’s back home, working, and studying for her master’s degree.
Life goes on.
But first, there will be a funeral this Saturday and lots of tears to go around.
 

 
 

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Jun. 29th, 2011 10:32 pm (UTC)
A lovely writing-
Kathy
(Anonymous)
Jun. 29th, 2011 11:49 pm (UTC)
Interesting piece. My sincere condolences on the loss of your family member.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 30th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC)
I'm so sorry, Patrick. What a huge loss for your family.
Kit
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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