Origin: Latin famulus, meaning “servant” → Latin familia, meaning “household servants,” but eventually also “the household” and finally “family” → Latin familiaris → Old French → familier → Middle English familiar, meaning “an intimate”
At the heart of Danai Gurira’s smart and sobering comedy Familiar is a surprise revelation — a profoundly unsettling family secret, suddenly and irrevocably surfaced — that makes the etymological kinkiness at work in the play’s title almost wickedly apt.
You see, the words “familiar” and “family” (aka la famille, la familia, la famiglia) share a root meaning way back in the Roman Empire-wayback. But it’s not a commonality grounded in blood ties, as we might have guessed. Instead, as suggested by the derivation map above, it’s one informed by physical proximity, by the relationship of servant and master: intimate and close-quartered, but inevitably and forever out of balance.
And sure, meanings evolve. But it’s still fascinating to hear “That’s familiar” and think “Oh, that could mean ‘That is exasperatingly complicated’ just as easily as it means ‘That is comforting because it’s my birthright, because I am part of it, because I know it so well.’”
Sometimes the space between “family” and “familiar” can mean that the people you think you knew are people you don’t know nearly enough about.
In my family, the surprise reveal came in the 1990s. Eileen Stephenson, who’d been a family friend since way back when my paternal great-grandmother Clara still lived in her Ohio hometown, paid a visit to Augusta, Georgia, where my family was based. At dinner with my dad, his sisters, and their mother Eunice, Eileen — by then a puckish, basketball-playing 75-ish — said she’d been doing some thinking, and she’d decided the time had come to talk about something she’d been keeping quiet for more than half a century.
Eileen wasn’t just a family friend, she told the assembled Grahams. She was in fact our cousin.
Turns out, Eileen explained, that Clara Belle Marquis Graham — matriarch of the Graham family, staunch Presbyterian, survivor of the Gilded Age, the Great Depression and two World Wars, establisher of norms and setter of expectations for several generations — had borne a son out of wedlock in 1895, a week after her 15th birthday.
An orphan herself, Clara gave the boy up to a neighbor family, kept her life on track, became a schoolteacher and a beloved figure in her tiny Ohio town, and married my banker great-grandfather a decade later. (Side note: Well played, Clara.)
The son Clara had given up was Eileen’s father, Melvin. He grew up nearby, played baseball at the school where Clara taught, and lived just long enough after graduating to start a career, marry a lovely young lady named Ruth, and see his baby girl come into the world in 1918 . And then he was carried out of it, along with so many millions of others, in the Great Influenza.
Eileen was raised by the widowed Ruth in that same small Ohio town, with regular visits from Clara, whom she knew only as a nice lady-bountiful type who gave the family a piano and stopped in from time to time with new sheaves of sheet music.
The clans remained close, and in her late teens Eileen spent a 1930s winter at a Graham family retreat in Nassau County, Florida. It was a halcyon time, despite the Depression-era direness, and she found herself falling for one of the handsome, well-mannered young men who’d been a regular presence at the beach house there. His name was Tom, and they carried on a correspondence upon her return to Ohio — a correspondence that quickly became intimate. They saw more of each other, much more, once Tom came back North as well.
It wasn’t to last, though. Tom, you see, was Thomas Marquis Graham. He was my grandfather, my father’s namesake (and my own), and Clara’s only son — or at least her only acknowledged son.
He was also, of course, Eileen’s uncle, though only Clara and one other person on earth — Eileen’s mother Ruth, widow of the long-dead Melvin — knew that. The task of breaking the news to Eileen fell to Ruth.
I spent a week in Ohio with Eileen in 2006, visiting the graves of various Grahams and Marquises and Wellers, hearing her stories, pawing through the boxes and boxes of documents she’d collected on the families, trying to tease more telling details out of her. (Did her flirtation with Tom ever go anywhere? Before or after the secret came out?) But Eileen had been both military wife and spy at different points in her career, and if there were titillating stories, she wasn’t telling them.
The most extraordinary parts of the narrative Eileen did share come from her own diaries of that Florida vacation and its aftermath. You see her falling for my grandfather in the late-winter sun, and falling harder throughout the later exchanges of letters. You see how deeply she’s distressed by the blow when it finally comes: “I can hardly stand it,” she writes. “I actually felt ill and in a daze after reading it. … I hardly know what to do. … Oh, if he only knew.”
He never did know. Neither Clara nor Eileen nor Ruth nor anyone told Tom why Eileen broke off their correspondence and kept her distance thereafter. Not then, not later. Not ever.
My grandfather died in 1969, and as far as I’ve been able to discover he went to his grave never knowing the real story behind his youthful passion for that pretty Ohio girl and its sudden end. Never knowing that he’d had a brother. Never knowing he wasn’t an only child.
Nor did Eileen and Clara ever speak to each other about her abortive relationship with Tom — or about the simple fact of their own blood relationship.
The closest they came was years later, when the adult Eileen earned one of several college degrees. At the ceremony, Clara waited for a quiet moment, drew her unacknowledged granddaughter aside, and took her hand.
“Your father,” she said, looking her squarely in the eye, “would be very proud.”
Trey Graham is the writer and social-media specialist on Familiar. For two decades, he covered D.C.-area theater for the Washington City Paper, where his work earned him the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. He’s been published in American Theatre magazine, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and his arts-journalism career also included a nice long stint on staff at NPR, where he was part of the team that created Pop Culture Happy Hour. You can find more of his personal work here.