Family reunion

I looked up from my toys one day and asked my mother why I had only one name besides my last name. I was around five at the time. There were ten children in our family and I occupied the "lower middle," being the sixth oldest child. It had occurred to me that day that I was the only one among my siblings to have no middle name. "Well, Dan, by the time we got to you," my mother replied, "we had run out of names."

This answer perplexed me. My siblings after me had both first and middle names so how could it be that the naming well had dried up before me? Seeing what must have been a very quizzical look on my face, my mother moved from joke mode to straight answer mode. "We thought that Daniel, a name from the Bible, was strong enough to stand on its own," she explained. She told me again the story of Daniel in the lion's den and how my name means "judge." I liked this answer better and went back to playing, feeling affirmed and more secure.

In August, the descendants from my paternal great-grandparents on the Avila side held a reunion in Fort Wayne, Ind. Over two hundred relatives attended the day-long gathering, coming from all parts of the United States and from Mexico. Reading the list of participants confirmed that the naming well had turned into a fountain that continues to bubble over.

One of my sisters created with the help of her husband and children a set of white table cloths decorated with rose-shaped imprints, applied by inking a stamp and pressing it to the fabric. A name accompanied each rose. Each particular branch of the family stemming from my dad or from his siblings merited its own table cloth. It was explained that the table cloths could cover the main dining table at family gatherings and extra stamps were provided to each branch for adding new imprints when new members came into that particular offshoot of the family. Through the creative use of PVC piping, the table cloths were arrayed along the side of the hall where the reunion was held.

These creations formed the backdrop for group pictures. As branch after branch of the family assembled to have a photo taken, I was struck by the visual interplay between the table cloths and individual groupings. The cloths diagrammed in abstract form the flesh-and-blood generations unfolding in time. After the reunion, I began to reflect on this interplay, and how it captured the intertwining elements of contingency and connection that mark every family's history.

In my reflections, I recalled the many stories, several shared during the reunion, that affirm this conjunction. Let's start with the first. My paternal great-grandfather met my paternal great-grandmother when he was 20 years old. She was an infant, and when he held her in his arms, he had a shocking premonition. He told her parents that someday the two would marry. Twenty years later, the prophecy came true. My grandfather was their firstborn son.

Here's another example. My paternal grandfather, born in Mexico, met my paternal grandmother in Indiana. The meeting would not have occurred had my grandfather decided to stay in Mexico. Instead he moved to Detroit when he was a young adult, found a job in the auto industry, and would come down to the South Bend area on weekends to attend dances in the area, where my grandmother had been born and was living at the time. She thought she was dating a Canadian, as my grandfather, who spoke French as well as Spanish and English, thought he'd have more job opportunities if he was thought to be an immigrant from the north rather than from the south. My dad was their firstborn son.

Here's a final example. This small happening eventually led to the meeting between me and my wife and through our marriage brought our daughter into the great flow of Avila generations.

I had started a new job in the Indianapolis area and was staying with a friend until I found my own place. One day a little ad caught my eye. There was an apartment available in Speedway. It happened to be across the street from St. Christopher's Catholic Church, where Elaine was a parishioner. The rest, they say, is history. Often I will tell Elaine and Miriam that had I not seen that little ad, Elaine and I would not have known each other, and Miriam would not be alive.

Every family can tell its own stories of initially little but eventually momentous happenings, decisions and encounters that helped constitute that family's particular make-up of heredity and kinship. The bond of marriage strengthens the capacity of each generation to build on itself. Thus families rooted in marriage are natural resources that government needs to protect, promote and defend. Bloodlines create names and memories, and memories build bridges, and bridges extend outward, affecting the world to the degree of unexpected vibrancy and ordered progression found in each family.

Daniel Avila formerly served the Catholic Bishops in Massachusetts and now lives and works in the Washington, DC, area.