Filling In


My mother’s side of the family came together this past weekend, for the first time ever. There were some whose names had never before passed our lips. We stayed on our island in Maine, which has become a summer gathering place for members of my immediate family. The numbers at meals swelled to as many as 24 between the ages of 99 and 23. Our core group totaled 16, braiding three different lines descended from my mother and her two brothers. Old photographs were shared around the kitchen table, many of which I had never seen. Stories filled the night and filled in history like a jigsaw puzzle that had long lain incomplete.

Not yet 24 hours since they left, I am still hearing remnants of their Long Island and Bedford, New York accents, once so familiar in my mother’s voice. And their DNA from Ireland, Wales and England carries the red-hair gene! I saw familiar hazel eyes, high-arched eyebrows, and enjoyed the shared antiquated words, like “ice-box” for refrigerator or “tomato” with a short “a!”

The first night, with my father and several other immediate family present, we sat around the tightly packed room of the farmhouse, and shared our entire given name and any background we know about it. This was a good way to get to know each other’s names, and in addition we learned how many of us descended from the same part of Europe.

On each of the four round tables at dinner, set in a row in the barn next door, I placed a box or shell, filled with “ice-breaker” question such as, “What was your favorite childhood book?”  “What was the most mischievous thing you did as a teenager?” or “What animal, vegetable or fruit most resembles your personality and why?” (For a complete list see the P.S. at the end of this post.) Only one table peeked at the questions that night, so busy were they discovering about each other on their own. But two mornings later I found them strewn about on the kitchen table among photographs and guest book entries. When left to our own devices, we all want to know who we are and where we came from. We hold mirrors to each other.


Sixteen of us moved on and off islands, and into small and large group activities while sharing stories, asking questions, and marveling at the discovery of pieces of our selves in each other. We divided into smaller groups to pick mussels, play tennis, or sail, and rejoined for lunch before garden walks and carriage rides through Acadia National Park. On our final day we had brunch at my eldest brother’s house before the final climax of a picnic with my father aboard his powerboat.

My father’s side of the family had so dominated my life growing up that there was hardly mention of my McGrath side. I heard the occasional story of how my grandmother’s Doberman pinchers bit people when they came to the house, (and learned that that included my Granddaddy when he emerged from his bedroom!) There were other, more difficult stories too. But this weekend, my McGrath cousins helped fill in many missing pieces to the puzzle of my mother’s family with mannerisms, pictures and stories. They presented new stories and different sides to the old ones. Hearing the same tales through their lenses reminded me of how there are always at least two sides to every story. It’s the difference between 1 line and the 12 lines necessary to make up a three-dimensional box.

Stories told from different angles allow us to broaden our view of the old stories we’ve carried throughout our lives. They can help us find acceptance or compassion where before we only knew judgment. And if we dig deep enough we find a treasure trove of love. That’s my new picture. It feels good to be inside the frame.

Are there parts of your family you don’t know?
When was the last time you shared a family story?
What questions would you want to ask if they were with you now?

P.S. Here is the complete list of questions, should you wish to open a conversation with your extended family:

– What’s your first positive memory?
– What was your favorite childhood book, and why did you love it so?
– Share one thing that likely nobody in this room knows about you.
– What’s the most mischievous thing you did as a teenager?
– What was your most exciting adventure growing up?
– What was your favorite subject in school?
– When you’re in an airport bookstore, what is your favorite magazine to buy?
– What do you love about the month or the time of year you were born in?
– What animal, vegetable or fruit most resembles your personality, and why?
– Describe yourself in 3 words.
– What was your most impactful memory as a child?
– What was your earliest memory from childhood?
– What was your favorite memory from your school days?
– What is the philosophy you’ve been taught to live by or that you’ve developed for yourself to live by?
– What’s one thing you would really like to do in the next year; 3-5 years?

– Describe your favorite family trip; when, to where and what made it so special?
– What was your favorite holiday tradition?
– Describe your favorite meal as a child?
– Tell something you did that your parents never found out!
– Describe something sneaky you did with a babysitter or caregiver that your parents wouldn’t have approved of!
– Describe your favorite childhood present, pet or holiday and why?
– Describe your secret hideout as a child?

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20 Responses to Filling In

  1. joaneee says:

    Eileen . . . Knowing that – after all this time — you had gathered together your mother’s family for the first time ever — in the most relaxed and touching ways. . . and in surroundings that all would be comfortable with. To choose your own family islands and places that were beautiful, nature-filled and thus informal always, would make it easy for others to relax, feel free to open up as perhaps never before.

    Each of us has our own questions about our roots. But as we grow older, we realize we have not asked questions when family was still with us. To me that has become my deepest regret as there is no one left to ask. I waited far too long.

    And so I shed a few tears, realizing how precious those days together with your mother’s family were. And — as it will be only when some considerable time passes — that you will be able to fully process all the things that were said that had filled out what had been an empty world for you on your mother’s side. You now have made attachments. Later, I am sure that you will be making connections, having more conversations by phone or email certainly, and realizing that there was still much you wanted to know that was left unsaid.

    I believe in this wonderful gift that you have opened with this family gathering, you probably will find that it may become the favorite treasure of each of the lovely people at your well-planned gathering. But you may be understanding the Eileen-beneath-the-surface as well in ways you had never dreamed might finally come out in the open.

    Each year we celebrate on named holidays. But perhaps, this unnamed holiday with the McGrath family this summer may be one of the most fulfilling to you — and to those who you had gathered close. Somehow, I think it may well be . . . with so much thanks to you who believed that “it is never too late”.

    You are wonderful!

    • Thanks Joan. I’m deeply touched by your warm response to this post from last week. I actually think we did make connections more than attachments, and I like your idea of making the date a kind of family holiday to be remembered from year to year. It might not happen the same month another time, or even in the same place, but this was a magical beginning for which I’m truly grateful. I know my brother, as well as my cousin who went before him on the McGrath side, were smiling down. We had perfect weather! Warmly, Eileen

  2. Irma says:

    Eileen, I love this post. I am sure you had a great time, it is reflected in your story. Isn’t that interesting that we are part of two families that are so different and almost rarely comunicate with each other. Thank you! Beautiful story which made me think for a moment about my parents families…warm feelings.

    Love you, Irma

    • Thank you dear Irma. I’ve been wanting to connect with you. Such a full time this summer, despite (or because of) the absence of my brother. Lots of good connections. I look forward to connecting personally with you soon. Love, Eileen

  3. Gladys Floyd says:

    Oh, what a wonderful time shared with family! I’ve tried to locate a great grandmother through several times and have given up several times. Finally, recently, I discovered that her maiden name was Miller, not Muller, which was the oral history handed down from my grandmother.
    My sister and I often share stories and I pass them along to my two children, hoping to keep the memories alive! I’m hoping, also, that all the quirky family sayings and superstitions are continued for many more generations.

    • Dear Gladys, how wonderful that you are keeping family stories alive. When our elders go, the memories often go with them. By passing them down, you are also sharing your legacy. Beautiful! — Eileen

  4. Phyll says:

    Wonderful idea to all get together! After so many years apart. How did it feel? And, how does it feel knowing all of these people were always a part of your family yet you never knew them? So many thoughts and feelings to think about, process, discover and delight in. Loved your questions: about relationships. childhood memories and getting to know our families better. Food for thought. I love your last paragraph so much, Eileen, so well-written, insightful, creatively detailed and expressed. Your sensitivity in this paragraph exemplifies how meaningful this time was to you. To re-connect with the McGrath side of the family and renew family ties, to honor and remember your Mother and her relatives, to learn about the silent side of the family, to learn about yourself, to grow, share, generate and invite new friendships. Such a magnificent time. Such an unforgettable summer.

  5. Marie& Tom Bond says:

    Dear Eileen, what a wonderful gathering you got to have with your Mother’s family members and in such a beautiful and meaningful place. Loved your conversation starters. You and Paul both looked so great in the picture above. It was also so precious to see all of you gathered around your Dad. We love reading your notes and think of you so often. It had been a bit of a rainy summer here in Williamsburg, but we stay so busy and try to keep cool and drink lots of iced tea! Wish you could visit here sometime soon, perhaps in the fall. Family is so important and I am so happy you had a wonder reunion. Look forward to your next Armchair conversation, you have a lovely way of reflecting on the past memories and experiences. Love, Marie & Tom

    • Dear Marie & Tom, I’m glad to know you are surviving the heat in CW! Thanks for writing. I’ll definitely let you know when I next get down your way. It was such fun last fall. Hard to believe it’s been almost a year already! love to you both. — Eileen

  6. Elaine Naddaff says:

    Hi Eileen, Thank you for sharing the story of the McGrath family gathering. You have captured
    the meaningful, wonderful, beautiful, happy, close, accepting, sharing and sunny side of your Mother’s family. And how touching and special that your Dad was there! You look lovely and Paul looks well. HAPPINESS is contagious! I, so, enjoy your articles. Maine looks inviting and your photos are everlasting and energetic. I like the list of questions which makes you a member of the
    “Grand Inquisitor” club…

  7. It is never too late!

    Reading this wonderful blog, and the related comments, reminds me just how lucky I am to have shared this opportunity; getting to know relatives who are now family– whom I might never have known!

    What started as a few smaller family groups has now become a larger (and lively) circle of family holding hands with arms open to welcome other members.

    What wonderful, unblemished and loving friendships we have created with gratitude, open minds, and open hearts!

    • Thank you Heather, for your open heart, and for bringing all the family photos, along with the example of clear and loving communication within a nuclear family. It was a joy to spend the weekend with you all. And yes, I too feel I’ve expanded from relatives to family.

  8. cynthia mackay says:

    Eileen what a spark plug you are, getting this priceless reunion together. Just like your mother, in fact.
    Nobody can understand himself unless he understands from whence he came.
    I love your questions so much I have printed them out for my family.

    • So dear of you to write, Cynthia, with all you’re going through. Please let me know how the questions are received if you share them with your family. I think of you and Warren daily, hoping the medicine works. Love – Eileen

  9. jill says:

    Eileen, What a beautiful weekend you created for your family. My great grandfather worked for I think your grandfather around the Greenwich, CT area; late 1800’s, my father (well at age 83!) has a childhood story book that his wife – gave to my grandmother as a child, and I believe it is signed by her. We have some photos of my grandmother riding horses; I would tend to think they are on the Rockefeller property. I live about a mile from where your brother Richard’s home is; and I am sorry for your loss. I’ve ridden my bike on the trails in Acadia; what fun it must be to ride in the carriage! Best, Jill

    • Hi Jill. Thank you for sharing about the connection between our families. Do you think the photos are of riding on the carriage trails of Acadia? I’m glad to know you have enjoyed them on your bike. And thank you for your condolences. I am still grappling with the loss. Yet. his spirit is still very present. Take care, Eileen

  10. Judith A. Meyncke says:

    Dear Eileen, When I read this particular blog I was overjoyed! You went into “action mode”. The pictures you posted were beautiful! A “long awaited” event, finally came to fruition. Congratulations! Everyone looks so happy and healthy. Since a young girl, I have always dreamt about having a large family and what it would be like? Remember the King family from the 70’s? You are all so fortunate to have each other. Were there tears among you at times? Thank you for sharing about this extraordinary reunion. There is so much more I could say and ask. Your list of questions for “us” were fun, as well as thought provoking. It enabled me to delve deep.Thank you for being a wonderful example and motivator to all your readers! Love and Blessings, Judy

  11. Thank you Judy! I’m glad you enjoyed the list of questions. I’ve sometimes wished I had a small family, like my husband’s, but those are mostly on the bad days, when I’m having to deal with conflict! On the other hand, part of how I’ve gained skills in conflict resolution, I owe to practice within my family.
    There were no tears at this reunion. But some of my cousins were surprised, and a little disheartened to hear some of the dark side of the family. Wholeness includes both.
    Take care, Eileen

  12. Denis says:

    Hello, I’ve read a lot about you have a very interesting book.

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