All Alike by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy posits that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That sentiment has become more than just one of the greatest opening lines in literature. In sociological/psychological circles, what has come to be known as the Anna Karenina principle describes any endeavor in which a “weak link” among a long set of variables inevitably dooms it to failure while in a successful endeavor, all potentially negative factors have been eliminated or overcome. Since there are many more potentially negative factors than positive ones—and remember, it only takes one negative factor to sink the ship—all families face a stacked deck. Or, as even Aristotle knew, it’s a lot easier to miss the mark than to hit it.

I was musing on this last weekend at my wife’s family reunion. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, about 85 people, all descendants from a single tree gathered to celebrate one thing: family. As one of the cousins said, “In good times or in bad, family is the constant. It’s what sustains us.”

I thought I knew a little about families; after all, my father was the caboose of seven, so I had a lot of first, second, and once-removed cousins. But geographic distance and age differences combined to make our reunions sporadic and as a result, they were more about trying to remember who was whom than about reuniting with old friends who for the most part grew up within a stone’s throw of each other. Looking in the rear view mirror of time, I suspect that the notion of family I developed was of a more Protestant, more distant, and more staid variety. But in my wife’s large Irish Catholic clan, lines and ties were defined by neighboring parishes and by siblings who never flew very far from the nest. The nucleus of family remained tight. It still does.

The protagonist of this story is Maurice Joseph Conley (known as “Doc” because he was a dentist) who arrived in utero from Ireland in 1890. He married Antionette (Nana) Ruppert and together, they had six children: Nancy, Maurice, Jr (“Buddy”), Elise, Jack (my wife’s father), Bill, and Bob. Now the math gets complicated: those six Conleys produced a total of forty-two children. By the next generation, the math began to spiral out of control; I quickly lost count and that doesn’t even include the most recent generation—the great, great grand-kids who were all running around having a great time, not caring a hoot about who belonged to or begat whom.

The last Conley reunion was back in 2006 and a lot of family water has flowed under the bridge since then. At this event, there were color-coded name tags identifying on which branch of the family tree one sat. The star of the current production was (is!) my very dear mother-in-law, Dorothy (“Dar”) who was married to Jack. (Jack was a pediatrician so he surely should have known what he was getting into!) Dar, now 92 and sharper than any tack I know, is the sole survivor of her generation and she presides over the entire enthusiastic brood with elegant serenity. (Dar, mother of nine, was an only child; how did she ever learn to make an assembly line of school lunches?) I asked Dar how many would be at the reunion if everyone were present and accounted for. She thought for a moment and said, “about 300.” That may be as close as we get to a precise headcount.

The Conleys are a beer and dance-or-go-to-bed crowd. (I’m making progress but let’s be honest: sometimes I check out before the lights are turned off, usually well after midnight.) They like to laugh and reminisce and chatter. Oh, how they love to chatter! I’m an outlaw; I hang out with the other outlaws and watch the film run off the projector’s spool and onto the floor. But I will say one thing: Conleys are worker bees so event set up and clean up are all-hands-on-deck affairs, as is the “aha moment” when things are relatively back in order and there’s time to review the battlefield over a last glass of wine or two. Or three.

I count myself lucky—no, blessed—to be included in this family, one Tolstoy would surely have placed among the happy ones. Sure there have been moments of loss, sadness, and pain; all families—even the happiest ones—go through dark tunnels. But in this particular family, there’s always light at the end.

So dance; don’t you dare go to bed.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A new collection of essays titled “Musing Right Along” will be released in June. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

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