In calculus and pre-calculus, we often speak of a “family of functions” in which some constant can take on different values. Such values, which might range between negative and positive values, make the function to take on different shapes as the values change. I thought of this recently as I anticipate a milestone in the life of a family member this weekend.
When I moved into my college dorm in the early 1980s, I was embarked on a great adventure comparable to the adventure my grandparents had taken when they set sail for the United States years before. Before the term “first generation college student” was used, I was one of the first members of my family to attend a four year residential college, and I soon found myself in what seemed like a country as foreign to me as the United States must have been to my grandfather, who for years read only Italian. In college, I found that it was often a struggle to succeed (and often, to survive) in a world where I was not clear about expectations. Because of this experience, I developed a good understanding of what my students who are first generation college students go through.
I was, however, not the first person in my entire family to attend college. I have two cousins who preceded me in attending a Jesuit college. These two cousins were a brother and sister, children of an uncle that I always admired. This uncle was the youngest sibling of my grandmother, and became one of several people who lived with her for some time over the years. She took in a collection of people when they needed a place to live due to deaths, divorces, other family issues, or simply the effects of the Great Depression. When my grandfather was buried years ago, someone commented that many of the people at the funeral had lived with my grandparents for a time over the course of their lives.
My uncle had been the first teacher in my family, the family intellectual, and he always encouraged me to learn more. When I was a teenager, he wrote a book, and I decided that I wanted to do the same someday. He and his family lived near New York City, and had knowledge of that city that seemed unattainable to me, as I came from a small town. His family always seemed to be laughing, and this was a sense of humor that his children inherited. I have memories of his two children trying to give my parents directions around Long Island. They used the slapstick convention of mixing the two meanings of “right”; “we turn left here; right.” As a little girl, I thought they were funny, as did my lost and confused parents who tried to drive unfamiliar streets.
For my mother, these two children are some of the last family members that she has left, and so maintaining a relationship with them has become more important as she has aged and others have died. My daughter and niece and nephew adore the (now grown) brother and sister, and enjoy spending time with that link to their past. That boy, now a grandfather, will experience a great milestone this weekend.
My cousin will be ordained a deacon this weekend, making official a role that he has played for years, as someone who shares wisdom and support to those around him. When my sister and my mother simultaneously occupied rooms on the cancer floor of our local hospital last fall, he was there, scurrying between their two rooms, always trying to encourage those of us who were visitors and to listen to us cry at the horror that was unfolding in our family. He was there with a pastoral presence when we all needed it. He also writes a blog about his thoughts about life, surely “preaching” in its most simple form.
When two people get married the ceremony is in many ways an affirmation of a commitment that already exists. In the same way, I am sure that his ordination ceremony this weekend will be an affirmation of the role that he already plays in the lives of his family and friends. As that day unfolds, I congratulate my cousin on this great milestone, and am happy for the many people his life will touch through this newly recognized role.