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Debra-Lynn B. Hook: The 'kinkeeper' is the person in the family who gets away with minding everybody's business

Debra-Lynn B. Hook, Tribune News Service on

Published in Lifestyles

I have recently discovered the title that most authentically describes my current role in the family.

“Mature matriarch” notwithstanding, the label that most directly applies to what I do these days is “kinkeeper.”

It is nomenclature I discovered in a recent New York Times parenting article, defining the person who keeps up with the details of the family and who disseminates such information accordingly.

The kinkeeper in me knows when it’s Aunt Susan’s birthday (August) and when cousin Pam’s son’s wife’s baby is due (January) and alerts everybody in the family so they can text good wishes.

The kinkeeper in me remembers which recipes are historically served on Thanksgiving (my cranberry relish) and which on Christmas (my grandmother’s pralines) and assures such traditions are maintained.

As kinkeeper, I am aware of any and all opportunities for family gatherings. These would include wedding anniversaries, death anniversaries and Mardi Gras like we learned to celebrate when my mother moved us to New Orleans. As kinkeeper, I know where to get Louisiana crayfish (Natchitoches) to punctuate such occasions in Ohio.

The kinkeeper is intimately aware of each family member’s triumphs and foibles and communicates them to others when appropriate.

Because of this family’s kinkeeping, everybody knew recently to feel sorry for Emily for falling off her bike; that Matt had the highly contagious norovirus and to act (avoid) accordingly; and that Aunt Paula could officially now be congratulated for recovering from hip surgery.

Such interest in everybody’s business might lead some to question whether the kinkeeper isn’t really a meddling busybody in disguise.

The difference lies in intent, frequency and tone. The kinkeeper is also a solid boundary keeper who has a keen sense of when enough is enough. The kinkeeper doesn’t do this job for the fun of it, or for the power, although if truth be told, I’ve always liked being in the know.

The kinkeeper ultimately does what she does to promote family solidarity and connectedness, maintains the NYT article and Carolyn Rosenthal, a professor emeritus of sociology at McMaster University in Canada who researched kinkeeping in the 1980s.

The kinkeeper has the effect of “fostering a communal sense of identity and well-being,” in essence, engaging the mental health and stability of a family, the article goes on to say.

 

Some details may seem trivial, like those surrounding the ugly turkey platter I insist on dredging up from the basement — and introducing before we eat — every Thanksgiving since 1994 when I bought it at a flea market in Missouri where we used to live.

Other data is more historically important, like the fact that our ancestors were really born in Syria and not Lebanon, which was determined when country boundaries were redrawn, which I bring up whenever we eat grape leaves.

Whether trivial or vitally important, such minutiae points to identity and connection, which is something I can still do in my physically dwindling life.

As a naturally curious, naturally relational person, it is something I like to do, which is not true for all keepers of the kin, which was part of the point of the NYT article: It is mostly women who take on the job of kinkeeper. For many, it’s added work, added stress they don’t want or need, leaving sociologists hoping more men will take up the mantle.

I would say to anyone thinking about being a kinkeeper, that they first consider these descriptors:

Must be naturally curious.

Must naturally crave connection and like looking for ways to foster it.

Must like trying to know it all without looking like they do.

The kinkeeper must always remember: If she engages in ego-driven overkill, rather than her informants appreciating and then remembering the details when the torch is passed, they will roll their eyes and shut off their ears when they see her coming.

At which point the community response will be reduced to the vapid, all-too-familiar “Oh, Mom.”


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