We drive on a highway surrounded by horse farms that are lush with the famous Kentucky bluegrass. The high-performance horses here thrive on it for its nutrient-rich leaves, and farm managers rely on it because the root system allows the grass to grow dense, even when heavily grazed. These roots can develop from a single plant and then interweave with new shoots, forming an interlocking system that supports a tough base underneath. Because of the matted roots, the grass is drought-resistant and will protect the hillsides from erosion. But, more importantly, for my children (and for me, if I would admit it), this is true barefoot grass—the kind that makes you want to get out of the car, kick off your shoes, and tumble down the gentle knolls. I tell my children there will be plenty of opportunity for that when we reach our destination.
We all meet at a bed and breakfast in Wilmore, about thirty minutes outside of Lexington. I haven’t seen most of my dad’s side of the family for years. For my children, who are five and eight years old, this is their introduction to aunts and uncles they have only known as names. But in conversations over meals and during walks around the small town, one relative is mentioned more than any other and always with respect—my father’s mother, Mary Kennison. I soon realize that she is the real reason we are all gathered together at this reunion. She is somehow rooted in each of us.
My father’s parents never made it further than 8th grade. But they felt strongly that their four children should receive an education—so much so that they transplanted the whole family in order to be close to Asbury College, now Asbury University, in Wilmore. My grandparents worked long hours in a restaurant until my grandfather suffered a debilitating stroke. Then Grandma, with the help of her college-age sons, sold the restaurant and worked as a seamstress. Throughout this drought in her life, Grandma remained committed to her goal. And eventually, each of her four children graduated from Asbury. Some, like my father, went on to earn master's and then doctorate degrees. Grandma’s desire to see her children properly educated rooted itself deeply and then spread. If you are a Kennison offshoot, you go to college, and most likely, you will end up in graduate school, too.
It was not only Grandma’s tenacity that her children cherished; it was her strength of character and compassion. My father’s sister tells me that Grandma, during her lifetime, kept her daughter and three unruly sons nurtured through an intertwining of toughness and love. And even after her death, her influence in their lives has not eroded away. I, myself, can remember always wanting to be on my best behavior around Grandma, even when I was very little.
My grandmother was like that single Kentucky bluegrass blade, propagating and deepening her legacy through her offspring. My sister and I were born in this small town after my parents returned from graduate school to teach here at the college. My brother was adopted here. And, according to my aunt, my family was at its best in Wilmore.
Again in Wilmore, at this reunion, I see my extended family at its best. There are hats of all shapes and sizes—old and new—hanging along the entryway of the bed and breakfast. We try on our favorites, and it is enlightening to me how each personality is displayed through the chosen hat. A very demure aunt selects a prim little number, while my father (the self-avowed black sheep of the family) dons the most outlandish woman’s bonnet. Seeing my dad around his siblings gives me context. Four pairs of the same square shoulders walk through the door. Four pairs of blue eyes—hauntingly similar to mine and to my children’s—share a common snap when angered and a similar crinkle in laughter. These automatic familiarities, along with the heritage of my grandmother, grant my children a comforting feeling of belonging. We are not among strangers; we are with family.
Yet, throughout my adopted brother’s life, he was never able to delight in that same privilege and could not adjust to our family’s environment. Was it the lack of a sense of belonging that drove him to burrow for his biological roots? Did he somehow miss the looking alike, acting alike, and thinking alike that traditional families share? Did he wish for the stories and histories of grandparents he couldn’t know?
And how many of us, with our biological roots dug deep, still search further back for links to our families’ origins and for knowledge of their native lands and cultures? Why is it important for my redheaded daughter and son to learn that Irish blood interlaces their veins? Why did so many of the Africans kidnapped and brought to America as slaves orally pass down their native traditions?
Our past matters. Identifying with a group and its culture brings context. But I wonder, how deep do we have to dig to find that the taproot is the same for all of us, and that we are not among strangers after all?
I spend time again with my aunt before I leave the reunion. I’m so glad I’ve gotten to know this woman, who is both so similar to, and yet so different from, my father. She talks again of Grandma Kennison’s example of hardworking faith and of how Grandma prayed that her strong assurance of love would be cultivated in her offspring to the third and fourth generations.
As I watch my children run barefoot through the bluegrass, my own desire for them is that they learn to interweave their roots with those of all lands and backgrounds, recognizing that we are all brothers and sisters.
And I think Grandma would agree: this would be the ultimate fulfillment of her prayers.