Dad always said, “Blood is thicker than water” when relating stories about relatives and their travails. He didn’t mean it impolitely or disrespectfully. He just meant that when it came to family loyalties, in his opinion at least, blood kin generally came first. Someone’s brother- or sister-in-law, stepmother or mother- or father-in-law didn’t have as high a “status” in the family hierarchy as a real (blood relative) brother or sister or mother or father in Dad’s estimation.
I think Dad came by this line of thinking naturally, his father but particularly his mother – my grandmother – having pounded it into his head during his youth. Grandma Mary was more vocal on these subjects than Grandpa. Grandpa tended to keep family disputes to himself.
But Grandma didn’t hold her tongue. Still, I believe Grandma Mary, like my Dad, came by her thinking on these matters honestly from her own experiences with family, her father (my great grandfather) Frank having remarried after Mary’s mother’s death.
That remarriage when Mary was still a young girl must have influenced her thinking. I have a letter to Mary from her older sister lamenting that their father Frank was being “driven like a mule” by his “new” wife Helen working on her farm. In another letter my Grandma’s sister blamed Helen for Frank’s eventual stroke and death. And when Frank died, Helen seems to have disappeared. Frank’s heirs ultimately inherited nothing from what was once Frank’s estate, a source of some consternation.
And on my Grandpa’s branch of the family tree, the same thing happened. Grandpa never spoke of it to my knowledge. But Grandma Mary did. My great grandfather’s brother – my great-great uncle – side of the family was “cut out of the will,” or so the story went, and thereafter, right or wrong, the two sides never had much, if anything, to do with each other. And still don’t some 90 years later.
Growing up I never even heard of that side of the Fetzer clan, even though we lived in the same city and there was blood there although diluted by generations. We attended family reunions for years with second- and third-cousins from one side, but never heard even a mention of our second- and third-cousins from the other side. It has only been since my Dad passed on that I met and now have established a relationship with the kin of my great-great uncle.
I’d venture a guess that probate court cases in examples like those described above might be the majority of the cases probate judges must decide. And when it comes to money and wills and possessions and heirs and who owns what and who did what to whom, there’s a good chance “bad” blood will be created when there’s no blood.
Money can and does and has and will poison relationships, especially when there are no blood relations to fall back on. And even when there is blood, like in the case of my great-great uncle whose family was allegedly cut out of the will, probate is almost sure to be fraught with emotions and disagreements.
No blood just makes the bad blood worse but in the case of family arguments over inheritance, what I’ll call “blood money and things,” it really doesn’t matter in the final analysis does it? It’s all bad.
I want to believe that’s partly what Dad was warning us about when he said blood was thicker than water. Family relationships are more important than blood money or things. We can’t take the money and things with us, so why get so worked-up over them?
There is no claim on my part of a unique story on family squabbles like this. I’d venture another guess that many families have some kind of similar kerfuffle in their family histories if they dig deep enough.
But family quarrels over inheritance, while maybe common, have generational impacts and color our attitudes about each other for decades. I mean, look at me. I’m writing about these issues almost a century after they happened in my family back in the 1930s.
And what’s been passed down is not Helen’s business acumen as the female owner of a farm or my great-great uncle’s love as a father. I’d venture a third guess that my great grandfather’s “new” wife Helen was actually a fine woman (rather than a “mule driver”) and my great-great uncle was actually a good man. Yet the accounts passed down tell a different story.
So while blood may be thicker than water, family divisions over blood money and things can change history … at least that history we remember. Blood or not, those divisions are all bad. And the time that allegedly cures all ills can be a very long time indeed.
Newspaper columnist Barry Fetzer lives on Queens Creek.