In my head, I’ve always placed my family into one category and my ancestors in another. My family members are my parents, my brother, my aunts and uncles, first cousins and grandparents. They’re the people I grew up with, the people I know too well, the ones who inspire the deepest and longest eye rolls.
My ancestors are the people I want to learn more about. They’re a mystery I want to solve, their lives influencing my own in ways I’ve only recently begun to discover. They’re finished stories with birthdates and death dates, offering lessons that come with the benefit of hindsight.
Then my mom died in July and the lines blurred.
Her death has changed me and the way I look at life. The constants in my life aren’t the same, and a lot of my expectations and assumptions have to be altered.
Every time I want to call my mom and tell her something, I almost start to pick up the phone.
Every time I call my parents’ home, my dad will be the one who answers. (My mom always answered the phone first. She’d rather run to the phone than let the answering machine pick up.)
When I’m shopping and I see something she might like, I think about how much she loved chocolate and the color turquoise. And how strange it is to know that I won’t be buying her anything anymore.
I have to revise some of my ideas about the future. I assumed that when I got pregnant and had a baby, my mom would come over and help me for the first week or so. I expected to see my mom grow older and reach the ages of 65, 75, 80. I assumed her mom would pass away before she did.
I never thought of my mom as an ancestor, but now my mom has both a birthdate and a death date. Future relatives won’t have the chance to get to know her first hand. They’ll be relying on the people who knew her and the things she left behind to get an idea of what she was like. Just like I’ve been doing with my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents and cousins, just like future generations will eventually do with me.
Now I realize there were never two categories, that we were always one family. We may be separated by time, geography or language, but we share family pictures and stories and genes. In general, we are all more alike than we are different. We all have a limited amount of time to live, share and pass down our stories.
Rifkin is a ghostwriter/personal historian and contributing writer to the Signal Tribune. For more information about her work, visit