Family is a funny thing. At least my family is. On any given day I could tell you that my family numbers only 3 to 4 to 7 to whatever number of people and I’d be right in each number, emotionally speaking. It just depends on how I look at family on that given day. There’s me, my sister, and my dad. And my step-mother and mother. And my friends, who can be so much like my family, closer than anyone but my immediate family.
In my family, family is an extremely funny, and highly mutable, thing. After Jennifer left over 10 years ago events transpired, things were said, backs were turned and feelings were hurt to such an extent that my sister and I effectively lopped off an entire section of our family. Our mother’s side, namely her sisters and her mother, and not simply out of spite or adolescent tantrum or through some desire to punish.
Like all things that take time and end up somewhere you can’t quite explain, it was a thousand simple little things.
I got an e-mail from my aunt recently, and out of the blue, wanting to know when all of this was going to stop. I think it was something I wrote here that prompted the e-mail, which should not surprise me—I’m not entirely sure how comfortable my family is with everything I write down here. But she had read a column I wrote here about Jennifer and felt compelled to respond.
The e-mail said, simply, that it was time for me to temper the whip, time to put down the flog and stop beating my mother. It seemed that my aunt (who was, ironically, probably my favorite aunt, although we don’t make such distinctions amongst family) felt that my relationship with my mother had disintegrated to the extent that she felt an intervention was in order. Super Aunt to the rescue, time to salve the wounds with tough love and hard words.
It was a funny, and not altogether uninsulting e-mail. The truth is it pissed me off, but it also frustrated me.
In most families you have a balancing act. There are people you don’t like or get along with, but the dictum is that they are family, and that’s just the way things go, and you love your family. Or at least you forgive your family, or you accept your family, or you do something that allows you to deal with all the idiots and malcontents. Whatever that is.
My family happens to be a little different. When Jennifer left it tipped the scales a little bit. It drew a line in the sand. I will be the first to admit that for the first few years I did not want to hear a single defense of what my mother did.
I don’t care what her reasons were, and I’ve told her that very thing a thousand times. I know the important facts about that time, and they are these: She had walked through our front door, past my sister and me as we begged her not to leave, hopped into her car and drove off. We had no contact with her for the longest time. I returned to college suicidal and depressed. I wanted to kill myself. My sister lost her best friend, and became quiet and pissed off for the longest time.
My grandmother used to call me. “If you had respected your mother more she might not have left,” she said. Then my aunt would call and I would tell what grandmother had said, how it hurt me. “Well, you know Becky,” they would say. “She doesn’t really mean it, you know that, she’s just confused.”
After awhile I just thought, Fuck it. Why bother. Who are these people? And I cut them off. You define family how you want, mine is simply different than yours. The fact that these people are my family is a birth defect, a mistake of blood, a genetic aberration. It has nothing to do with family, really, although of course there is a connection.
After all, I did spend a good amount of time with these people, good and bad. Bad and good.
In a court of law, with a judge sitting black robed and gavel fisted, I would have to admit the following:
1) That I have punished these people. Yes, I certainly have. I walked away first, I broke the first tether. At a time in my life where I was unsure if I wanted to live or not, I came to the conclusion that my relationship with them was not good for my survival.
2) I have continued to punish them, long past the point where it had any purpose. It became habit, really. The hardest thing to do is not to be nice to the people around you, but to be honest, and sometimes being honest is just fucking mean. And sometimes being mean is someone else’s opinion.
3) I also punished them for things that Jennifer did. I began to realize (years ago aunt, and in no relation to your e-mail) that there were parts of my life that I did want to share with Jennifer, and that was going to be an impossibility with how much I hated here. So I performed a hate transfusion. In order to be around Jennifer without wanting to shout her head off I would have to cast a certain shadow on them. This was easy to do. They are easy targets. They rarely do the right thing to begin with, and constantly feed my ammunition.
4) But I also stopped getting birthday gifts from these people. I stopped getting any phone call unless it had something to do with Jennifer. I stopped being able to talk to certain members that I liked because equal time had to be given to everyone. All anyone could ever tell me was how hurt everyone had been in the process.
5) And over the years we all just stopped talking. They stopped trying because I stopped trying. They can blame me if they want to for that, but I wasn’t sitting there looking for a reason why my phone wasn’t ringing but randomly. It just seemed things had ended.
Some things just are not salvageable. And some things are bred in the bone, no matter what you do.
My cousin got married last year, and I went to the wedding. I would never have missed it for anything, but it was not the most comfortable event to attend. Still, I was around Jennifer’s family in whole for only the second time in over a decade—the first time since Becky’s funeral.
And it was nice. I had a wonderful time. I caught up with cousins I hadn’t talked to in a long time, and cousins who I keep in regular touch with. I sat at a table with Uncles and Aunts who have mutually had as little to do with me the past years as I have had with them. I laughed and told old stories and we all caught up and enjoyed being around each other.
It was a great, great weekend. My sister would have come were she not the maid of honor at her best friend’s wedding that very same weekend. And she would have enjoyed it as much as I did.
And to me that was better than the best to be expected. It didn’t really matter what happened in the past because sometimes what’s bred in the bone is bred in the bone and you can’t escape it no matter how much you would like. Sometimes your family surprises you and behaves like a family. And it is fulfilling and rewarding.
Recently my sister had a family engagement dinner. My father and his wife (my step-mother) and my grandmother and my two wonderful step-aunts and my future brother-in-law. And Jennifer. Corey and my mother.
I think anyone who was to account for the evening would say that we had a wonderful dinner, and a fun time. That we were like a family. Teasing each other, telling stories, laughing, ribbing, and making toasts. And Jennifer was right there in the middle of it, laughing louder, talking faster, being more entertaining. Just like she can be when she is on. I think anyone who was to account for the evening would say that there was a lot of love at the table that night.
Relationships evolve and they progress. Some things get said and done that cannot ever be fully recovered from. Some relationships change permanently, indelibly.
But family is fluid and never static. Things change and then change again.
What pissed me off so much about my aunts e-mail was not that she does not have the right to her opinion, or that the things she wrote were not valid or based on something. They were certainly based on something, even if I am not entirely sure what it is.
What pissed me off about her e-mail was that for the past 3 years there have been positive steps with Jennifer. We have these long, intimate phone calls; I share things with her, she knows things in my life. The fact that she is not Mom to me is not my fault, but the fact that she is in my life in a positive way is a testament to both of us.
I’ve been reading Isabel Allende’s brilliant book Paula lately. It was written as her daughter passed on, and as Paula lay dying, in the hopes of relaying and making sense of their life and how it had been. The facts just in case they had to start over when Paula woke up. It is one of the most amazing books I have ever read, a testament to many things, family being one of them, but more so of a mother’s love of her daughter, a book of admission, a losing of bearings, a slow tearing of the fabric.
This morning on the subway, as I sat there sweating in the heat, I read these words.
“In the long, silent hours, I am trampled by memories, all happening in one instant, as if my entire life were a single, unfathomable image. The child and girl I was, the woman I am, the old woman I shall be, are all water in the same rushing torrent. My memory is like a Mexican mural in which all times are simultaneous: the ships of the Conquistadors in one corner and an Inquisitor torturing Indians in another, galloping Liberators with blood-soaked flags and the Aztecs’ Plumed Serpent facing a crucified Christ, all encircled by the billowing smokestacks of the industrial age. So it is with my life, a multilayered and ever-changing fresco that only I can decipher, whose secret is mine alone. The mind selects, enhances, and betrays; happenings fade from memory; people forget one another and, in the end, all that remains is the journey of the soul, those rare moments of spiritual revelation. What actually happened isn’t what matters, only the resulting scars and distinguishing marks. My past has little meaning; I can see no order to it, no clarity, purpose, or path, only a blind journey guided by instinct and detours caused by events beyond my control. There was no deliberation on my part, only good intentions and the faint sense of a greater design determining my steps. Until now, I have never shared my past; it is my innermost garden, a place not even my most intimate lover has glimpsed. Take it, Paula, perhaps it will be of some use to you, because I fear that yours no longer exists, lost somewhere during your long sleep—and no one can live without memories.”
It doesn’t matter what the facts are anymore. Take any stance or angle you want to the events that happened between my mother and my father. I don’t fucking care about any of it. My truth exists for me; it came from me and my experiences and I understand it as best as I can. The stories beyond what my sister and I went through during that time mean very little to me. We survived it, and I’d wager that she questions the truth of that time as little as I do.
You don’t get to pick your family. They are simply family. For good and for bad. Family is what it is.
“What actually happened isn’t what matters, only the resulting scars and distinguishing marks. My past has little meaning; I can see no order to it, no clarity, purpose, or path, only a blind journey guided by instinct and detours caused by events beyond my control. There was no deliberation on my part, only good intentions and the faint sense of a greater design determining my steps.”
That’s my new motto. I’m adopting it Isabel, your beautiful words from your beautiful book are going to be mine. I hope you don’t mind. But they make sense to me.