Every Sunday we go to my husband’s grandmother’s house for dinner. On an average week 15 people show up, but if everyone happens to be there we cram 30 people into her living and dining rooms. On those weeks we hope for good weather so the kids can go outside instead of playing tackle football at our feet. There is always cake, because it is always someone’s birthday. Through marriage I’ve gained entry into an extremely close knit family, practically an amoeba that absorbs new members like they’ve always been there. My own grandparents have been gone for quite some time, and it’s nice, albeit a little strange, to once again receive cards signed “grandmom and grandpop.”
By contrast, my family appears a bit aloof. We don’t get together often, and when we do there are generally a lot of introductions that go something like “Hi, I’m soandso, I think I’m your cousin.” Some of it is due to the huge age spread within each generation. My grandmother had 7 children over about 30 years. I’ve got cousins in high school and cousins with grandchildren. The sheer size of the family makes it hard to keep up with everyone, and we don’t all live in a concentrated area like my husband’s family does. Our families are very different creatures, and when my husband and I first got together I started to feel very sad that my own extended family didn’t look like his. After a wake this past weekend where I saw uncles and first cousins I hadn’t seen in 20 years I spent a lot of time thinking about why we’re so distant.
My family is like the elephant in the story of the blind men and the elephant. It’s so big that no one person can really get the full picture of what’s going on. We can only see a small part at a time, and make conclusions based on that. For a long time, I believed my uncle destroyed my family.
When I was younger, in grade school, I remember getting together at my uncle’s house for holidays. There was croquet and billiards and a big dinner around a huge dining room table. In the mid-nineties my aunt died, and I don’t remember many regular family parties after that. My uncle fell apart after his wife died, and from my perspective as a 12 year old, the family fell apart with it. Family gatherings, when they happened, were tense. If my uncle wasn’t there, his absence was noted and mourned. If he was there, his drinking made him unpredictable and sometimes scary. I watched my dad repeatedly struggle to bring my uncle back to reality, only to have it fail catastrophically every time. Eventually my uncle became “my estranged uncle,” and remained so for another twenty years. I saw the family less and less as I started my career and family.
My uncle passed away recently, and our loosely assembled family coalesced for his wake. At first it was pretty awkward, and I tried to figure out how to introduce my husband to a cousin when I was only 50% sure of their name. I was embarrassed that I could name my husband’s family members more readily than my own. But once people got past the obligatory “I haven’t seen you since you were this big,” I could start to see that we were still a family, even if we weren’t so closely knit as others. Not everyone had a bond with everyone else, but there were threads of connection running all around the room that held us together. There was something there, even if it wasn’t as picturesque as Sunday dinners at grandmom’s. There was laughter, and shared memories, and the occasional surprising discovery of things we didn’t know we had in common.
I now understand that it takes more than one broken man to destroy a family. Even weird families like mine are made of tougher stuff than that. We may never fully clean up the damage left in my uncle’s wake, but we’re not dead yet either. Although we’ll probably never all be in one place again, or function as a singular amoeba-like entity, we can strengthen the individual links between people. We can move forward, and try to heal as we go. We can become friends on Facebook and ‘like’ each other’s photos, celebrate our successes and offer sympathy for our failures. We may always be a little awkward, and that’s OK. At my uncle’s wake I finally learned to stop resenting my family for what it wasn’t, and love it for what it is.