Somewhere between my mom being an agoraphobic with panic attacks and my dad's work, we didn't go on many family trips when I was growing up. Our big vacation was driving to Hilton Head, South Carolina when I was 11 or 12. Most of our other vacations were weekend trips upstate, going to the beach, genealogy excursions to cemeteries, or family-related. After mom died, we went on one vacation -- a week of camping at the beach with my extended family that was fairly disastrous thanks to a thunderstorm.
I'm not writing this to complain about not going on fancy or expensive trips as a kid, or complain that I've never been to Disney. As an adult, I've gone to some amazing places and plan on going to more (4 words: Costa Rican Sloth Sanctuary). This, along with the upcoming holiday season, just made me think about the many fractures in my family.
Both of my parents had one of their parents die when they were young (my dad's mother, my mother's father). Because of this, I don't think either of them had normal childhoods. I don't think either of them grew up going on family vacations (my mom's father was in the Army, I don't think that relocating counts as a vacation). My paternal grandfather remarried and had more kids (so there are 4 from my paternal grandmother, 3 from my paternal step-grandmother for a total of 7 kids). There was always tension in their family partly because of this. My maternal grandmother didn't remarry or have more kids (my mom was an only child, and Nana never let her live this down). She died when I was 8, but my mother's cousins filled in the void.
There was a main nucleus on each side: my mother's cousin (by marriage) Sandie (who had a blended family as well) and my step-grandmother, Janet. Because we all lived in the same little town, my grandparents and my mom's cousins knew each other and got along. My aunts and uncles even went to school with my mom's cousins. After my mom died, I didn't see my mother's side of the family as often because my dad gravitated towards gatherings on his side of the family. After Janet was diagnosed with Alzheimer's (and as my cousins grew older and had families of their own) and after my grandpa died, that side of my family seemed to have lost some of the gravity that held us together.
We used to have ginormous family events at my paternal grandparents' house -- you know, the kind where every table and chair in the house was used so that we could all eat together. There would be nearly 30 people eating together and almost nearly that amount of desserts. We'd play basketball together before dinner and Trivial Pursuit after. As it turned dark and if it was still warm enough, the kids would play manhunt in my grandparents' backyard and the neighborhood. These are some of my most treasured memories of my family mainly because I was blissfully unaware of many of the tensions and pain that ran deep on that side of the family.
As I got older, went away to college, and moved 250 miles from my whole family, I noticed that I became somewhat of the black sheep of my dad's side of the family. My father wasn't the best at keeping me in the loop in regards to family events (people would invite him to things and assume that I got the message -- and I did, but usually with too little notice to do anything or after the fact). As the years went by, I just felt further and further from my dad's side of the family because of the distance and because nothing and no one reeled me in when I was adrift (and I didn't seek it out for myself). (Though, this is not beyond the point of repair. And there are times when I think moving back to NYC would help with reconnecting.)
Just as that was happening, I started reconnecting with my mother's side of the family. They told me stories about my mother and helped me keep her memory alive. I felt a very strong bond with them because of this. Sandie and her husband Joe also have one of the strongest marriages that I've ever seen. I'm always in awe of the love they have for each other and how it translated into the relationships that their kids have with each other and with their own little families. I feel the gravity from them, holding me close.
It was only after she died that we were able to untangle some of the strings she used. It was a huge revelation when my father told me that he didn't want the role of enforcer/punisher, but that mom had pushed him into it. I think it was a big revelation for my dad to realize how my mom exaggerated stories about bad behavior, neglecting to tell my dad some of ways she drove wedges between my brother and I, or how she would often belittle us.
But the damage was done, and we took no time to repair it (i.e, no family therapy). I was 13. My brother was 14. My dad had a full time job and 2-hour commute each way. The goal was to survive. We did survive, but it was far from perfect. The wedges that my mom drove between all of us remained, and continued to push us away from each other. I didn't trust my dad to be the confidant and protector that I needed. Dad and I used to get into the worst fights because I felt like I was doing all the housework and my brother was doing none of it. I think my brother resented me asking for the help, that I was trying to control him.
I think my father is thankful that my brother and I were good kids -- we did our homework (usually), got good grades (always), didn't get into trouble, didn't become hooligans, and managed to get into good colleges. But the truth of it is that when my mom died, my brother and I stopped being carefree kids. And what makes me the most sad out of anything is that we stopped being siblings.
My brother and I not only shared our parents' DNA, we also shared the common experience of growing up together and experiencing many of the same traumas as each other (unlike my brother, I didn't take a line-drive to the nose). And instead of that uniting us, it really drove us apart. I feel a pang of jealousy and hurt when friends talk about their close relationships with their siblings.
In more recent times, my brother has had his wife (and her family) and his kids to focus on. But even when they were just dating, I feel like my brother treated his future in-laws with more care and respect than my dad and I. He preferred the shiny new thing to the thing that was broken and needed repair. That sometimes left Dad and I alone to shoot the shit together. Quite often dad and I end up talking about the past. But it's hard for me to say what I always want to say because I know they hurt (not because they're arrows pointed at anyone, but because they are surface wounds). Things weren't perfect back then and we were all hurting in our own ways. But I regret that we didn't have family therapy. I regret that we let this terrible thing push us apart instead of bringing us together.
So holidays are always sad times for me because I feel not only estranged from the family (extended and nuclear) that I was born into, but also because I've yet to create one for myself (see previous blog post).
In the last post, I alluded to the book that I'm reading, by Doug Newburg(that he so graciously shared with me): The Most Important Lesson No One Ever Taught Me. He asks of the people he works with these 5 deceptively simple questions:
- How do you want to feel everyday or about your life in general?
- When, where, and around whom do those feelings happen?
- What gets in the way of those feelings or takes them away?
- How do you get those feelings back?
- What are you willing to work for?
These questions have been doing a number on me in just about every facet of my life. It just happens that today they had me thinking about my family. I want to be connected to all of them in a meaningful way. I don't want to be the person that people feel obligated to have around. I want to know what makes my family happy, what makes them sad, and how I can help shoulder their burdens.
But where I get hung up is the third question -- what gets in the way? And I think that is where I need to end this blog post, because it requires me talking to my family and not to my readers.