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Theory of Relative-ity is a newsletter about the similarities and traits that run in famous and not-so-famous families, and what we can learn from recognizing these patterns. It will also sometimes discuss epigenetics, doppelgängers, our personal and historical origin stories, and the similarities that connect all of us.  - Rachael Rifkin

I’ve been thinking about the goals I made for 2019 and what I’d like my 2020 to look like. Here’s what I came up with:
  • This will be a year of partnerships and collaborations. Think about who is doing work like mine and who I’d like to work with. Make a list and cultivate those relationships.
  • Do my own thing, my own projects, without waiting for someone else’s approval.
  • Meditate, be present. Meditate. Be present. Meditate! Be present!!
  • Indulge in cooking, baking, making. Don’t just do it, absorb it. Be wholly there and just thinking about chopping, stirring, bringing together.
  • Cultivate all relationships. Who in my life do I enjoy being around, talking to? 
  • Make lists—at the start of the day, when I think of something randomly, or not so randomly. Then chart a plan based on those lists.
  • Play! Play with the kids, with Joey (my spouse), with friends, on my own. Just do it.
What do you want your 2020 to look like? 
And here are a few things I’m reading, watching and listening to:

This video from Finding Your Roots’ Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He says, “Despite how different we look, all humans hail from the same common ancestor.”
This article on why we need more memoirs of regular lives. “Imagine we all kept a shelf stocked with sharply written, illuminating first-person accounts of these stages of life—not just the eventful beginnings and endings, but the middles, too. We’d have what amounts to an instruction guide for living. We’d know better how to survive the ordinary things that happen to all of us but which are no less daunting for their ordinariness.”

The Up series of documentaries, which has checked in with the same group of people every seven years since they were children. The latest, 63 Up, was released in 2019.
Brief tales from my grandfather’s life during the Korean War. Finding his Korean War memoir changed my life, and I’m currently writing my own memoir about the experience.
Original caption from my grandmother Ruthie: 

“Can't you just hear me say 'Come on to my house'? These pictures are all for your benefit, dearest. Faye was busy clicking away.”
My grandmother never threw anything away. When we were cleaning out my grandparents’ house we found tax returns going back to the 1950s, a trash bag full of trash bags, magazines, letters, etc. But she threw out the letters she wrote to my grandfather while he was serving in the Korean War because she didn’t think her side of the story was important. Luckily, her photos and photo captions remain, revealing a saucy bit of wit. Looking at all of them, they also suggest a need to be upbeat and uplifting for the soldier away from home.

For other Korean War and family history photos, check out my Instagram account!
Relative-ity on Instagram >
Relative-ity on Instagram >

It Runs in the Family: The Roosevelts

What kind of family produces two presidents and a social activist who helped create the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights? A family with generations of rich, well-educated, independent, successful business owners and politicians.

Early Origins

Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt came from a prominent wealthy family with deep roots in the U.S. Their ancestors, Claes Maartenzen van Rosenvelt and wife Jannetje Thomas van Rosenvelt, were among the Dutch immigrants who came over in the 1640s when Holland was encouraging migration to the colony of New Netherland, a swath of land that included parts of what are now New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

It wasn’t long before the family went from owning a farm to a profitable mill a generation later. As they built their wealth over the years, they became entrenched in their communities as politicians, merchants, lawyers, bankers and activists. The Rosenvelts’ grandsons, Jacobus and Johannes Roosevelt, were responsible for the Hyde Park and Oyster Bay branches of the family, respectively, with Theodore coming from Oyster Bay and Franklin from Hyde Park. While their different political parties—Teddy was a progressive Republican and Franklin a Democrat—sometimes divided the family, the branches had more similarities than differences.

Both sides came from New York, prized education and valued community service. By and large, they were and are prominent citizens who keep active in their fields of interest and communities. They’re also famous for producing outspoken charismatic characters with sharp wit and endless energy and intellectual curiosity. 

Theodore Roosevelt’s older sister Bamie was said to command attention, no matter who else was in the room. Theodore’s younger sister Corrine was one of the most popular speakers in the Republican party and the first woman to speak at a major party convention. 

Alice Roosevelt, Theodore’s only child from his first marriage, was known for smoking cigarettes, hiding small whiskey bottles in her gloves, and carrying around a pet snake. She also advised her father on political matters. One of her often cited quotes is, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”

The Most Famous Roosevelts: Theodore, FDR and Eleanor

Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy had a voracious appetite for knowledge. Before he became president at the age of 43, he authored biographies, history books and articles. He actively engaged with a wide range of intellectuals, read at least one (and at most three) books a day, could recite poetry from memory, was a cowboy, ornithologist, paleontologist and taxidermist. And that’s without even getting into his pre-presidency political career, which included terms as United States civil service commissioner, police commissioner of New York City, assistant secretary of the navy, colonel of the Rough Riders, governor of New York and vice president.
Franklin Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt
FDR, Teddy’s fifth cousin, loved to tell stories and jokes, and was outgoing, optimistic and persuasive. By contrast, his wife Eleanor, Teddy’s favorite niece and Franklin’s fifth cousin once removed, was more of an introvert. She was also intelligent, serious, persistent and fiercely independent with a passion for social causes. 

Death and illness shaped Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor’s lives. Theodore’s dad died while he was in college, and years later his first wife and mother died the same day. He lost one of his sons in WWI, after encouraging all of his sons to serve. When Eleanor was a child, she lost her mother and brother to diphtheria in the same year, and her father two years later. She and her younger brother were raised by their maternal grandmother. Franklin’s father died when he was a teenager and Franklin contracted polio when he was 39. As a child, Theodore had asthma and was often sick. As he grew older, he took up boxing and wrestling and his asthma stabilized. From then on, he was athletic, playing tennis, lifting weights, running and hiking. 

The three had a passion for social reform and progressive politics. Teddy was known as a trust buster who broke up monopolies because he believed they impeded competition. He also enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act, advocated for pro-labor laws and won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping broker an end to the Russian-Japanese War. Over four terms, FDR led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, gave fireside chats, enacted the New Deal and created social security. As a champion of worker, civil, women and human rights, Eleanor was one of FDR’s most progressive advisers and the first person to introduce him to the deplorable conditions of tenement housing. She wrote a daily newspaper column, held weekly press conferences, was a sought after speaker, traveled to the South Pacific to visit servicemen during WWII, and served as chair of the Commission on Human Rights as a UN delegate.

More recent generations of Roosevelts continue to be successful business owners, bankers and lawyers as well as philanthropists and professors. Kermit Roosevelt III, 48, is the great-great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt and teaches constitutional law at Penn Law. Teddy Roosevelt’s great-great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt V, 44, is an investment banker. Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, 45, and great-grandson of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, leads a Reconstructionist congregation. FDR’s great-granddaughter Amelia Roosevelt, 53, is a concert violinist. Kathleen Roosevelt, 41, is an epidemiologist and division director at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Eleanor’s great-granddaughter.

No matter which Roosevelt you’re talking about, this 1930s quote from journalist H.L. Mencken still rings true: “The Roosevelt family is completely superhuman. No member of it ever becomes tired.”

Thank you to the people who sent in their answers to last issue’s writing prompts!
Here’s one from Alex Stillman: 

Did your family have any holiday traditions when you were growing up?  What were they? Wrapping stuff and giving it to each other. Siblings would do this with our used stuff sometimes, just to beef up the present count. Gag gifts...that was a thing for a while. 

Did you continue any of those traditions as you got older? 
The used stuff? No. Still wrap stuff though.  Trying to perfect it so kids don’t have gift hangovers.

Have you started any of your own holiday traditions? 
Barbecued holiday foods. That’s catching on, I think anyway.

What kind of holiday tradition would you never want to participate in? 
Formal stuffy holiday parties I guess. Heat turned up too much. Everyone in their ugly sweaters. Toast after toast. Praying a lot. Not my thing. I’d do a holiday seance before one of those parties.

January Prompts:

Here are some more questions to mull over, write up, and/or share with the people in your life. As always, if you’re so inclined, please share what you come up with. I might feature your answers in an upcoming newsletter.
  • What are some of your favorite moments from 2019? 
  • If you could change one thing about 2019, what would it be?
  • Do you have any goals for 2020?
  • Where do you think you’ll be in your life, one year from today? 
Email Your Answers >

P.S. There will be special freebies given out at the end of the year to people who answer every newsletter writing prompt!

If you have a related story to share, please email me. I’d love to talk to you about the similarities that run in your family!

Email Rachael About Your Family Similarities >

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P.S.  Did you know that you can now create your own side-by-side comparison photos of yourselves and your ancestor(s)/relative(s), based off the photo project I created? For more info on the photo packages Cielo Roth Photography and I offer, go here and scroll past the first section.
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or my new Instagram channel!

Photo Attributions

The Roosevelts
Photo via the Ken Burns’ film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Theodore Roosevelt picture: 
Photo via Good Free Photos

Eleanor Roosevelt picture:
Eleanor Roosevelt, 1898. Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library archives.

FDR picture:
Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1904. Photo from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library archives.
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