Grand Rapids, MI

Father’s Day is around the corner. I had to look up the term to see if it has an apostrophe. It does, and it has had since the time over a century ago that it became a day set aside for special celebration in the United States. Apparently it is a day for remembering Dads one at a time. My own Father has been gone for more than a decade, but I still like to think of him on Father’s Day. I like to imagine how I would say “Happy Father’s Day Dad,” and kiss his cheek…and then what I would say next?

If we left out the apostrophe might this holiday be a good day for honoring Dad and also for remembering that each one of us is a twig on a family tree? By the beginning of 2017 had sold its genotyping services to over three million people, which suggests that a lot of people are curious about who their distant relatives are. Where do I fit in the throng of three million looking for their roots on a website, and how am I connected to the 7,500,000,000 (yes, that’s seven and a half billion) people now inhabiting the globe?

A website can send me an image of the globe with shading to tell me where there are other people with some of the same genetic markers I have, but does that mean I’m connected to them? It ‘s hard enough to know my place in my own family tree. If I go back three generations to my great-grandparents to whom I am related genetically, am I still connected to them in any other significant way?

Avashai Margalit in The Ethics of Memory makes the distinction between thick and thin relations. Thin relations are those we have with strangers by merit of being human beings. Thick relations are those we have with our children, our parents, our partners, and friends. Margalit is also willing to include in this group of thick relations those with whom we identify as part of our tribe or nation. What distinguishes thick relations from thin ones is the element of shared memory.

With Father’s Day around the corner I have been thinking of the fourteen people who preceded me by three generations. I have met only two of them – my parents. Four more of them, my grandparents who I never met, I know by name only. The other eight are already lost from my memory. Whether these are thick relations defined by a shared memory is an open question. What can hardly be debated is that these relations are thinning.

This year instead of giving Dad a new T-shirt, tools for his grill, or a toy, the gift that might really last is giving Dad a few uninterrupted minutes to tell us his story. A chance to thicken up the connection.