On the edge of being relatives: family narratives about the separation and uniting of relatives

Irina Razumova

Just like any memory, family memory is characterised by its selectiveness, individualisation, a special balance between remembering and forgetting, in case of events thought being preferred to facts (Blonski 1935: 183; Rogovin 1977: 30-31; Chekunova 1993: 100; Brewer 1994), also its dependence on mnemotechnique, primarily on its written form (Vygotski & Luria 1993: 21, 175). In oral tradition the lack of written data is compensated by mythological concepts, subjective preferences, general historical imaginations, etc.

The smooth flow of life on the pre-text level becomes discreet in individual and especially in public memory: key and significant moments, the meanings of which are estimated in retrospection, will become distinct and background elements will stay aside (Neklyudov 1995: 78), therefore events will be placed unevenly on the timeline of family memory.

Absolute ('calendrical') chronology is rarely detected in stories reflecting family history. If dates are mentioned in the story, they usually indicate to documented sources. Most chronological statements from earlier history are limited to the century (with the exactness of the third of century) or pointing out 'times': "They came here from Siberia before the time of Peter I" (Larissa, 22), etc. More frequently the time is determined through family events.

Similarly to the structure of any biographical and autobiographical stories, time is used as the main structural element in the stories of family history. Dating is of secondary importance; it is done by mentioning events and is quite approximate. For example, the conviction that ancestors are immigrants from Novgorod, allows concluding that they lived in Kargopolye since the 14th century; their 'Polish' surname and the place of residence of relatives - Vyatka - give rise to the conclusion that they came (were exiled) from Poland in 1863 after the uprising, etc.

It is characteristic that timelines lack the general sequence of events on one axis, the starting point may be any event that the teller knows and regards as a landmark (Potaenko 1997: 115). For the researcher of family tradition the typology of events is important - the typology which structures the biography of family and shapes accordingly the time structure of oral history.

The internal time of family history may be observed on two levels. The first level is a genealogical model that forms the time range of the given group and is expressed in terms of generations - from forefathers in the past to future descendants (Toporov 1973: 123). Within every generation the central events are marriage and the birth of children, i.e. the creation of the next generation. On the second level, the internal time of family history joins a linear and cyclical model, through which the exchange of generation is shown and the knowledge of a related group is recreated. In stories reflecting family life the time structure is made up of a number of events, including marriages and divorces, birth and death of relatives, other personal events of the life cycle, redistribution of roles, separation and reunion of family members, changes in the status of the family (also changes in the social status of an individual) and changes in the place of living, working, etc. The way in which the above events are accentuated forms the foundation of the heritage and personal narratives - of traditional family history.

In the following we handle the structure of those plots in which the opposition of the union/separation of relatives is depicted. Such plots are among the basic structures of family narratives because the achievement of the unity of a group is also the concept and basis of the existence of a family. The semantics of union/separation, which is in the most detailed way presented in the thematic core: the union/dissolution of a married couple is dominant in the 'family text' and it organises the time space of the stories.

The material we deal with - oral stories and other texts - have been recorded by the informants themselves. The informants are mostly young people (17-30 years of age) living in the northwestern part of Russia (the regions of Karelia, Arkhangelsk, Murmansk and Leningrad). The material was collected from 1997 to 2000.

The separation of relatives is primarily a conflict situation. Differently from 'ideal' situations, which are expressed in few words, even formally, plots that deal with conflicts make full use of their resources. It is characteristic that only a few know of quarrels between blood relatives. Such conflicts occur mostly between 'fathers and children' about the children creating their own family and between brothers and sisters about property after the parents' death.
Stories about conflicts between in-laws are so widespread that it can be concluded that certain tension in this respect may be regarded normative. For instance, there is an understanding that witchcraft can be passed on to blood relatives only (Svetlana, 24 yrs.). Often good relationships with one's mother-in-law are pointed out - it is regarded as worth mentioning and affirming, thus proving that this fact is interpreted as quite unusual. The dissatisfaction of parents with the marriage of the young and their absence from their wedding is often mentioned in the stories without any attempt to motivate their behaviour, i.e. it is considered absolutely natural.

On the other hand, an inherited regularity may be seen in such conflict:

In my relatives' stories I noticed that when a woman marries a man from our family, her relationships with her close relatives deteriorate. (Elena, 17 yrs.)

This confirms the strength of one's own family, which is fixed with each new marriage. There are also situations of opposite nature, where the 'miserable fate' of the family is acknowledged, reflected by accidents that have happened to the members of the family.

One of the main reasons for the split between families is the unacceptability of the other family's characteristic occupation:

The Aksentyev family was not very good. Whereas because they have practised and they still practise witchcraft [---]; relatives on my grandfather's side did not associate with them [---]. The Filippovs were a family of teachers [---]. And I think this is the reason why these two families do not fuse. (Marina, 17 yrs.)

Misunderstandings between families are reflected in the description of class and professional inequality, the main criteria of estimation belonging to the field of property, education and ethics. Generally it is marked as the opposition of the 'cultured' and 'uncultured':

His [ex-husband's - I. R.] family were very proud of their pedigree. And wherever possible, they definitely mention that his grandmother was the daughter of a wealthy lord of the manor; that everyone in that family was educated, cultured and well-bred; that everyone lived in wealth, ate from silver dishes, etc. [---] They all were confused, horrified by the fact that I was a country woman from a Karelian village, that my parents were common people. And naturally, it haunted all through our life together. (Angelica, 29 yrs.)

According to the collected data the marriage conflict usually occurs as a collision between families. It is also proved by the discourse structure of 'disentangling relationships', which the opinion of relatives is relied on and affirmation is found in similar situations.

The closest people are suspected of wanting to take everything that belongs to relatives. This is associated not only with divorce or the violent 'rebirth' of a relative (Since he married, he has been as if exchanged!), such fears are also related to 'territorial' usurpation:

Grandfather said that she [his sister-in-law - I. R.] imagined that all her husband's relatives wanted to move to her place in Bryansk and then turn her out of her own house; and that her mother-in-law was behind all this. (Alla, 17 yrs.)

In the separation of families the material and spiritual beginnings are markedly opposed. The conviction of the avarice of in-laws is the universal motivation of conflicts; it is made real in stories about dramatic and tragic collisions:

Grandmother toiled hard to win her husband's parents faith in her. Although her dowry was more important for them than her inner qualities. (Ekaterina, 17 yrs.)

Grandfather's family was very rich, but they did not take grandmother and her four children [after her husband was called to the front - I. R.] to their place. And grandmother had to give the children to the orphanage. (Tatyana, 18 yrs.)

Grandfather's mother died in childbirth when grandfather was three. Her mother-in-law grudged the horse to send for the doctor. (Anna, 20 yrs.)

The most successful way of avoiding conflicts is spatial separation: the young couple's freestanding living room in the general family residence, moving to live separately, etc. For example the explanation that follows the story how mother-in-law 'began a battle' against her daughter-in-law:

Even after the wedding attempts were made to break the relationships, but the young Smirnov couple travelled on business all over the country, i.e. they had a chance to live independent life. (Anna, 17 yrs.)

It becomes evident in the stories that the relatives of the husband (wife) try to prevent such separation, attempting to preserve their sphere of power. Motivating their action, they refer to moving away to live separately as being against the norm in the 'past' (it was not customary) and to the greed of the in-laws. For example: sister-in-law, from whose place the young couple moved away, sues them. According to the informant (the story is about her parents), the family supposed that it "did not pay off" (Emilia, 17 yrs.).

The 'expansion' of in-laws (usually women) who have gained rights over a new family member is revealed in that even in the case of very conflictive relationships they prevent divorce, therewith applying even means of magic. A woman, who "could not leave" her husband, was told it was because of her "mother-in-law's efforts". Only after consulting a witch for nine times she could get a divorce (Marina, 24 yrs.).

The mutual relationships of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, mother-in-law and son-in-law and sisters-in-law are revealed similarly to classical folklore genres (fairy-tales, ballads, etc.) The relationships between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law or mother-in-law and son-in-law form according to different models and in concord with traditional role divisions functioning among relatives (the daughter-in-law's subordinate status in the 'strange' house, the son-in-law's independent status) and with the mutual disruption of people of the same sex.

A wife's mother may have similar functions to those of the husband's mother: she 'charms' the son-in-law to her daughter, sometimes also 'separates' the couple by means of magic, although generally such demonic features that are characteristic to a husband's mother are not her nature. In the following example she charms, proceeding from her approval of her future relative:

Grandmother decided that she would marry, they sow potatoes, and then she divorces him. But grandmother's mother liked the son-in-law and as she was a witch, she did it so that grandmother could not leave her husband. (Anna, 20 yrs.)

The acquaintance of mother-in-law and son-in-law before the couple gets acquainted is seen as a predestined and positive omen. A similar motive about mother-in-law and daughter-in-law has not been detected.

The sphere of the functions of the sisters-in-law is more limited. They are much more often given a negative characterisation than positive, and it may be paralleled with the traditional plots of fairy-tales and ballads.

In the brother's wife the right of the in-laws for the new relative becomes manifest to the extent of the relative's total 'separation' from her parents' family:

According to grandmother she [brother's wife - I. R. ] was a very evil and quarrelsome woman. That was the reason why after marrying her Ivan stayed away from his family. Even when he died [---] his wife did not inform grandmother [i.e. his sister - I. R.] about it, she learnt about the death of her brother incidentally from total strangers. (Anna, 17 yrs.)

In certain circumstances the brother's wife may favour the expulsion of her husband's younger or minor relatives, for instance she drove her husband's minor sister "out in the street" in winter (Anna, 18 yrs.). It is a common belief that brothers' wives/daughters-in-law bind their brothers/sons to them, support the shaping of the worst qualities in them (for example make them into drunkards) and stand out with their dirtiness. Similar characteristics are often transferred to uncles' wives and the wives of other male relatives.

Husband's sisters are characterised slightly differently. Like in classical folklore the husband's sister is obviously associated with exorcism, as a result of which the husband drives his wife to exile (see SUS 706, 707 e.a.). The same pattern is also met in personal narratives.

Grandfather left for the front very soon. Grandmother lived together with mother-in-law and sister-in-law. [---]. Once grandmother got a letter from grandfather announcing that she was free now and could hang around as much as she wanted. It came out that sister-in-law had maligned grandmother. [---] And [grandmother] went to her relatives in Kondopoga. And after a few months grandfather found her. (Olga, 17 yrs.)

This family story is built up on the plot of a fairy-tale, which incidentally coincides with reality. Like in various other cases, here the culturally familiar stereotype defines the choice of material that is preserved in collective memory as something vital (Neklyudov 1998: 292). With regard to the above I would like to point out that while it is normal to repeat the plot of a fairy-tale, a genre that is orientated to family relations and values, in personal narratives, yet sometimes it is done deliberately. If real life is not fabulous, it may be interpreted like that. For example in stories about good stepmothers (also mothers-in-law):

It is like in a fairy-tale about a stepmother, only in a fairy-tale the stepmother is evil, but here she is good [a summary about grandmother - mother's stepmother at the end of the narrative]. (Elena, 17 yrs.)

It can be seen that in conflict situations the family of in-laws is represented mainly by females who demonstrate their right for the new relative and in such a way act as the embodiment of the concept of family.

Like aforesaid, the birth of a baby who unites the two families reduces the acuteness of the conflict. It does not always have to be the first child, as the child who unites families must take after the members of the hostile family:

For a full year grandmother did not come to my cradle and she did not allow her son to babysit [---]. When I was one year old, she came to me for the first time and saw that the second child was similar to the Davydovs, including her (but the first took after the Korshiyevs). Her first words were: "This is ours". After that she started to love me. (Irina, 17 yrs.)

If the conflict is solved in a negative way the relationships are not only discontinued but also the death of a member of family is possible. The most typical cases are the disease and death of the daughter-in-law (her child, grandmother) as a result of the evil intentions of mother-in-law, or the opposite situation - the death of mother-in-law (father-in-law) as a response to the behaviour of daughter-in-law:

After the war, when grandfather brought grandmother [his young wife - I. R.] home, great-grandfather had an attack - he died because he could not endure such insolence. (Larissa, 19 yrs.)

The husband's mother died after her daughter-in-law threw away a family relic. (N., 35 yrs.)

Whereas the conflict between families is to a certain extent 'natural', the separation of blood relatives is considered as the violation of natural balance. Therefore such stories are characterised by the difference in the narrative structures and plot motivations. The plots of the first type spring from the motif of uniting and develop in the direction of gaining welfare, the final discontinuation of relationships or a tragic solution. Plots of the other type emphasise separation and reasons for separation, not always taking the narrative to the logical end of a realistic situation, fixing it in quite a stable way.

The idea that a conflict between blood relatives is against the norm brings along the exaggeration of external circumstances as the reasons of the conflict in the narrative. The stories of this group represent the metaplot of the opposition of substantially intrafamilial and social reality. At the same time, the conflict situation presumes that the parties take a personal attitude, revealing the central role of an individual in the emergence of the unbalance of the group. Among the most permanent conflicts is the dissolution of a family because of political (religious) reasons: one of great-grandmother's brothers fought for the Whites, the other for the Reds, because of that "they nearly never met, but when they did, they refused to talk about the war" (Svetlana, 17 yrs. Also see: Razumova 1998: 626, no. 13); mother's nanny was religious and "she did not want to live in the house of mother's parents, because Stalin's portrait was in the large room" and therefore she did not spend her childhood in her parents' house (Maria, 18 yrs.).

The most frequent reason for quarrels and discontinuation of relationships between related families is the conflict of the material interests of brothers and sisters when legacy is distributed, although such stories exist only in a very limited circle. The external, 'historical' situation is an additional stimulus to such conflicts:

During the Finnish war grandmother ("an active communist") burnt the copies of documents that certified their right for the family store, this caused trouble with her brother. (Yulia, 18 yrs.)

Inequality in property and also in social status is from the point of view of the family the most likely and most impressive statement when interpreting unsolved crime. For example, great-grandfather, who managed to 'separate' before collectivisation and therefore was not expropriated, had a house which was burnt down; the family thought that relatives were involved in it because it had not occurred to them to do the same and consequently they suffered (Svetlana, 17 yrs.).

The narratives are far from presenting the entire diversity of familial conflict situations. The typology and ways of realising these situations belong to special research (Kushkova 1999). In this case I am interested in these as in facts expressing the separation of relatives (they outline the plot of separating), because each act of separation, like any act of the opposite nature, is crucial and therefore mentioned in the family calendar.

The largest number of forms of expression and ways of interpretation can be found in the descriptions of territorial separation. In case of leaving without a conflict it is forced, non-final and can be overcome with the help of different means of communication, including spiritual ones. The range of the area separating relatives and the actual borders (from the house borders to national borders) are perceived differently, depending on familial and personal attitudes. Thus a relative living abroad may remain a member of the family, but he may also be regarded lost, 'dead'. In the latter case living in another state may be considered 'betrayal' against one's country and/or family:

One of grandfather's brothers was taken a prisoner of war and he settled in Sweden. My grandfather and his father disavowed him. They considered him a traitor. Only a while before his death grandfather forgave his brother and went to meet him in Leningrad. (Elena, 17 yrs.)

In different circumstances the separation of relatives and the emigration of some relatives could be one of the possibilities of self-preservation of the family. For example, the emigration of the two elder brothers of grandfather and their families into Finland in 1917 was decided at a family meeting. From that point on the family was regarded as consisting of two branches and communication between the two depended in different times entirely on the political situation (Emilia, 17 yrs.).

In situations of territorial separation (leaving, departure, etc.) there is always a ritual moment of farewell, which symbolises the temporary withdrawal of a relative for an indefinite time period. This is true not only about the traditional sending someone to the army, but also about the family farewell to children who go to study and to family members whose job requires their absence from home; it also concerns the departure of relatives after a 'traditional reunion' and a number of other events. In many families daily home-leaving is also a ritual procedure. The ritual of farewell, the purpose of which is to support the balance of the group, is orientated to the future happy return of the loved one, even if the prospective for that are rather vague. Older relatives tend to regard such farewells as 'the last', and may present their oral texts in a form similar to the last will.

Stories of important meetings and leave-takings make up a substantial if not large part of family narratives. Coinciding with the central signposts of the life cycle, such events create another rhythm level in the history of relatives as a group. On one hand these stories fix the orderliness of the temporary losses and meetings of relatives in between actual births and deaths and on the other hand they create a one-way process, showing either the gradual weakening or strengthening of the family.

In recent years the 'reunion' of relatives has become a popular subject, induced by (a) the re-establishment of relationships that discontinued in the course of historical shocks and (b) getting acquainted with 'new', i.e. previously unknown relatives. The story how relatives who had gone to Finland (Sweden, Germany) 'turned up', is built up on search (which is more frequently initiated by representatives of the family living abroad). The course and stages of the search are described in detail, the obligatory 'first letter' and the first meeting is mentioned and finally the firmness of relationships is stated. The motif of 'searching' may be replaced by 'unexpectedly finding out', for instance finding a family name in a newspaper, which leads to further communication.

The unexpected meeting of relatives far from home is important, especially in critical conditions like during the war. Depending on the context of the events such meeting may be interpreted as 'a granted farewell'. Unforgettable are the first meetings of relatives who were not acquainted before, whereas the narratives focus on some external details. The most marked are situations that combine both of the mentioned matters: an unexpected and first meeting - the relatives know each other on a 'foreign' territory according to physical features, an occasional phrase, etc.

Among the most important meetings belong meetings after a long separation, after 'losing' one another (for example children during the war), and they involve a fear of not recognising the relative. Stories about such meetings are dramatic and very emotional, because as a rule the reunion follows hardships. Stories about return from the front are also significant. These include a typical feature 'son does not recognise his father':

Father comes from the front. But Kolka was small, he saw him - and ran away! And cries to his mother: "Mother, mother, there's a soldier!" Father - "soldier". How we laughed! (Elena V., 77 yrs.; similar version - Anna, 17 yrs.)

A relative who has returned after long absence - especially from the war, army service, another country, etc. - has to be 'recognised' again (he comes as 'a different person') or at least he acquires some kind of 'other' qualities:

Mother recalled how her mother talked about her father who came from the war against Germany: "Father came from the front and spoke German - 'mersi', 'mersi'". (Aleksandr, 20 yrs.)

According to their sisters, brothers 'change' after service in the army so that their relationships become different: instead of quarrels there will be friendly affection, instead of friendship, however, estrangement.

If the close ones are not recognised at all, it proves that separation has exceeded a certain limit. In the following example sister and brother went to visit their grandmother:

So that we came and stood with my brother on the threshold. But grandmother thought that some kind of correspondents came (we had a camera with us), and started to set the house in order [---] But there was an old man, an acquaintance of grandmother. He looks at Igor and calls out: "Lida, look, your grandson came with his wife, and you don't recognise him". (Irina, 17 yrs.)

The importance of the situation is amplified by the fact that a strange person recognised the relatives first, because of which, according to the informant, especially grandmother was later surprised.

Another narrative, in a certain sense similar to the above situation, shows that a child does not recognise her mother because she is 'at work from morning till night'; the daughter asks father: " 'what woman is that?' - and only after mother changed her job, the daughter began to call her mother" (Irina, 17 yrs.).

The specific narrative patterns of the separation/union of relatives depict the internal estrangement/approach of individual members of the family or small groups and these can be followed in the system of mutual relations. Either may be the result of an incident, transition of generations or traditional division of roles:

Father [---] was not the most loved one of the three sons. It is more likely related to the fact that usually the family likes the first child very much [---], but the youngest - that is the youngest also in Africa. So that the middle one remains. (Olga, 19 yrs.)

They [grandfather and his brothers - I. R.] were all very friendly and they did everything together: both on party days and when hunting. But after the brothers got married, no one needed another, everybody had their own family, their own problems. And although they live together, the houses, gardens of the three brothers are next to one another, they are worse than strangers are. (Alla, 17 yrs.)

Such regrets, referring to the friendly relations of previous generations, are commonly observed.

Mutual attractions and disruptions reveal intrafamilial relationships that are also reflected in the vocabulary that is used to denote relatives. Granddaughter calls her grandmother 'mother', because grandmother brings her up, while her real mother is "organising her personal life" (Svetlana, 18 yrs.); daughter calls her stepfather, whom she loves, and her own father, who she sides with, both 'fathers' (Svetlana, 17 yrs.); the closest older relatives of the second and third generation are simply called by their names, etc.

The various forms of uniting and separating in their combinations and the ways of interpreting these forms have an important function in family narratives as well as in life today.

Translated by Ann Kuslap