As I lay in bed next to my three year old, he is staring at the slowly fading green glow coming from the stars on his ceiling, and I’m staring at his beautiful face. He is the perfect combination of his father’s nose, my eyes, my brother’s cheek bones, and his grandfather’s hair. He is a wonder of genetics: a perfect and unique combination of borrowed traits. His long eyelashes start to flutter as he drifts toward sleep. He rolls toward me, closing his eyes, and wrapping his leg around mine so I can’t sneak away. I used to do the same thing to my mom when I was his age. My mind wandered as I lay pinned under a now snoring boy.
His inheritance is so much more than skin deep, and it is all around him.
When he was a tiny baby I used to sing to him while I walked him, crying, around the house for what felt like hours. Eventually, his body lost the fight and he fell fast asleep on my shoulder. With what little energy I had left, I sang, endlessly, to fill the silence and keep him from waking again. In my tired stupor the only song I could think to sing was an old blues song called Cotton Fields that my mom used to sing to me when I was little.
When I was a little bitty baby my momma used to rock me in the cradle in them old cotton fields back home.
Only she didn’t say “cotton fields”. From a young age I had a strange love for the violin. The first concert I ever went to was a violinist when I was three years old. I loved everything about them: the sound, the way they looked, even the word violin. So my mom used to sing songs to me and replace the lyrics so they were about violins. It made me happy, which made me quiet, which made her happy. I’ve heard several versions of Cotton Fields as an adult. I know the real lyrics, but in that moment with my newborn son I sang my mother’s nonsensical lyrics about violins. It just felt right. My little boy has never heard any other version. To him, it’s the violin song.
There are little pieces of my childhood scattered all over my son’s life. The more I thought about them, the more I realized how much my family have influenced me and my son’s life. Even though some of them have never met him. When I’m cooking dinner, my son likes to sit on the counter near me and help. Sometimes I let him stir with a wooden spoon, or crack eggs, or sometimes he just watches me. I never thought much of it. It seemed so natural that he should sit on the counter. As I lay in his bed that night I remembered seeing photos of myself, around his age, sitting on my grandmother’s kitchen counter, licking a large wooden spoon, and covered in cake batter.
One of my son’s favorite foods is something we call “Red Beans”, which is really just baked beans mixed with ketchup and brown sugar, but it seems to be unique to my family. As a child I could never understand why my friends had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned it. I never realized something so simple and routine for me was actually a little piece of my family’s history. Last summer my grandfather made the dish he created more than 50 years ago, and his great-grandson recognized it immediately. This family friendly recipe will be passed down for generations and live on indefinitely.
My son also carries with him the legacy of relatives he never had the fortune to meet. When I was pregnant with my son, my husband lost his grandmother. She’d had an important impact on my husband’s life and it was terrible to think she would never have the opportunity to touch his first born child. She was also the last in her maiden name’s blood line: the end of her family name. Until my son was born. He carries her family name with him, without knowing it, as his middle name. Though she never held him in her arms, she will forever be a part of his identity.
So much of this sweet child tangled around me came from the generations of family before him, and from something more powerful than genetics alone. We pass down precious pieces of ourselves to our children, and in them we can live forever. I held him close for a few more minutes, feeling connected to the generations of parents before me. I thought of all the wonderful memories I will pass down to him in the years to come.
Finally, I slipped quietly out from under him and snuck down stairs. It was getting pretty crowded in that bed. Sometimes we need time to ourselves too.