Hesses Pass the Torch

For completely understandable reasons, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the peaceful transfer of power. It is the linchpin of any democratic system at the level of the nation-state. For smaller groups, the “transfer” is often the transfer of responsibility and obligation. And power too, of course.

My family—using the word to denote both the family I was born into and also the families we produced—has just last week had a peaceful transfer of power and I would like to tell you about it. Since the death of my parents, the top row of the family has been the four sons and their wives—for convenience, “the Brothers.” I am the second of the original set of four. Now, with the death of the eldest, the first of the new set of three.

The children of the Brothers—no grandchildren yet—have been labelled “the Cousins.” There are nine of them, all shown in this picture. Since they are all in their 50s and 60s by now, you could assume that the cast of characters has been stable for a long time. That is true.

But the Cousins have not been a group for a long time. By my calculation, less than a week. We went into this most recent family reunion expecting it to be the last one. It would have a nice narrative arc to it. We began these reunions after the death of the second parent, my mother, in 1988. We have met every few years since then. The idea that this series would come to an end with the death of the first son seems almost obvious. Maybe just “tidy.”

The last few reunions have been organized by a few of the Cousins. The idea was that each of the brothers would offer one of their clan to help do the planning and communication for that year. It didn’t work exactly that way, but it was close enough for us to feel that we had a system in place. But it was sputtering for a variety of reasons and the natural end seemed near.

I had no idea that the Cousins would constitute themselves as a group this time. By “group,” I don’t mean “pool,” as in the set of Hesses from which the organizers would be drawn. I mean “group” in the sense of meeting together, taking the measure of the group’s appetite for decisionmaking and deciding to be the ones—the group—that would make the next family reunion happen. It appears that is what happened.

How did it happen?

Someone like me would be sure to wonder just how such a thing happened. My theoretical predisposition is that there is a condition that makes if more likely and then an event that triggers the happening itself. I’ve heard stories about the trigger. One of the nine cousins, one who has had a lot of experience with business groups and therefore with “ice-breaking exercises” suggested a round of stories in which each person would be required to brag on himself or herself. [1]

That was an inspired choice. For one thing, the proposal would have taken some such form as “Why don’t we…?” The pronoun does not refer to a pool of people, as the Cousins have been; it refers to a group of people. It refers to the people in the room at the time and by happenstance or good planning, that included all nine Cousins. For another, in the several versions of the story I heard, the verb “brag” was used, as in “You have to “brag on yourself.” Well…”bragging” is not something Hesses are good at. The range of practice varied, as you would expect among the four fraternal households, but out and out bragging was not encouraged anywhere and was probably criticized most of the time when it appeared. [2]

Further—again as I was told the story by several participants—some of the early braggers were found to have bragged inadequately and were required to do it again. Something a little more egregious, please. I feel real delight in that. Not only do you have to brag, but you have to brag “enough” and there is a community of your peers making sure that the new norm—a norm distinctly different than anything that obtains among the Brothers—is honored. It is a simple and powerful way of saying two important things. One, “We” are not “Them.” “We” means everyone in the room. “Them” means the parents of everyone in the room. If the goal of the exercise was to distinguish “Us” from “Them” it is hard to think of a better one. And it was all done in high spirits, as it should have been.

Handing off the Torch

I wasn’t there, obviously. If we want to think of this as one generation handing the torch off to the next generation, I am of the handing off generation. There would be no reason at all for me to be there. All the members of the taking the handoff generation were there, however, and as I hear the stories, everyone had a part in constituting the group. I mean by that that everyone contributed something without which the group would not have become what it is.

That doesn’t mean it is a done deal, of course. All the agreements they made—whatever they were—could come to seem precipitous as the lives of each member pick back up again. The communications that were instant that night in that room could get frazzled over time and space. There is no way of knowing.

Still a group was formed and I, for one, am not going to bet against them. I hope to be an honored member of the “previous administration;” [See The West Wing, Season 7, Episode 22] to be told when and where the next reunion will be and to be invited to attend.

This event, whatever its eventual outcome, makes me hopeful. I attended this reunion confident that it would be our last. I may have reassured several inquirers that it would be the last. I don’t feel that way anymore. I am eager to see what happens next and I am prepared to be a fan.

Best of luck, everybody!

[1] I do, sometimes, use “themself” where the context will allow it, but not in a story about my family. No sir/ma’am!
[2] My parents famously disagreed about the appropriate attitude toward their progeny. Mother liked to say she was “proud” of her boys. Dad attempted to correct her, saying that they were “pleased.” In all likelihood, Dad was pleased and Mother was proud.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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3 Responses to Hesses Pass the Torch

  1. Michael Hale says:

    The idea of “you have to brag “enough”” is inspired! Essentially the participants have to open themselves (himselves or herselves?) to potential disbelief/ridicule/joshing from other members of the group. No “humblebragging” allowed. Thanks for sharing. Makes me wish those of my generation and the “kids” were closer.

  2. Love this, Poppy. ❤️

  3. thinkydoug says:

    This was by far my favorite reunion. All the cousins are now interesting adults, complete with challenges and accomplishments that every one of us can either relate to or appreciate. In talking with Kathie about this, I said that we have all “come into our own” and I enjoyed the time immensely.

    I’m glad you’re no longer so sure that was the last one. 🙂

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