This week I’ve been aware of a family-sized hole in my chest. I don’t miss the family that used to be, I miss the family that never was. That could have been. What’s it like to be part of a big family that likes each other? I have no expectation of constant humor and love; I’m no longer that naïve. But a family that isn’t cruel to each other just for the sake of being nasty? That helps each other remember parts of themselves they had forgotten? What is that LIKE?
I was no longer welcome in my family when I was 20. I learned to create rituals and traditions for myself and my children. I learned to create family from the people in my daily life. This year, I’ve connected more with my “chosen” family because of the pervasiveness of video meetings than I ever have before. And I am so glad I’ve learned to grow my circle in this way.
But there remains a sadness over losing my biological family that may never completely disappear. And this year, I keenly feel that loss.
My sister and one of three brothers are my remaining siblings. Two brothers are alive, but they have cut themselves off. I have three children with whom Tim and I have weekly Zoom meetings, which increases our contact 100% over pre-Covid standards. The pandemic is inspiring us to make an effort among ourselves, and it has helped.
But the pandemic and the global discussions about how everyone is handling holiday gatherings reminds me of the disconnection in my family, the holes and the gaps, the places where the glue came undone decades ago. My sister is in the process of moving from her home in Chicagoland to an even more distant home on the east coast, and I am flung into memories about raising our kids together, 20 minutes away from each other. The afternoons at the park, the sleepovers, the Christmas Eve gatherings and sledding outings. She is my Family. Capital F.
With this massive change happening in her life, she and I are each on separate space missions now, with flying craft that are falling apart, and like everyone else, our only possibility for contact is virtual.
During this year’s holiday time, she is largely occupied with the big move, and I’m still sitting around pondering the space inside my head. She’s sending me some items she retrieved from our Dad’s house after he died; a bin of ancestry documentation from an aunt, my old Royal typewriter, and I don’t know what else. I can’t even imagine what voices I’ll hear when I open those boxes.
Right now, there are slips of memories flitting through my head, shapes and shadows of people I’ve known. There must be some key to keeping those people fresh in your life, in your mind, but I have never known it. I don’t know if my mother was too independent to keep family ties strong, or if my father retreated so stubbornly to his shell that pulling him out for a family gathering wasn’t worth the effort. But with my parents and siblings, family connection died.
Maybe big families, like my son’s girlfriend who has cousins upon cousins that she calls FRIENDS, have some secret to maintaining affection that my family lacks. Going back as far as I can remember, my mother’s family was never in the same place at the same time unless somebody died. Irish wakes were my version of family reunions. I loved being in the crowded living room of my Aunt’s house weaving between the knees of my distant relatives as they drank whiskey and told stories about dead people. I loved escaping to the basement to play with the Mousetrap game. I loved hiding from the booming voices of the men in the family, who scared me as much as they intrigued me. Were all men angry? Uncle Steve didn’t seem angry, and he smelled good and laughed a lot. But he still scared me.
They were my family. Well, my mother’s family. There’s a whole family on my father’s side, and of those, I have only met one person. Like the family tree I’m building, there are empty spots with names but no images. Gaps and holes.
With this year’s ancestry research, and the relative simplicity of connection through video, and the talk around holidays of “missing the family” this year, I am more aware of what my circle of connection lacks. Tim and I are proud of the bonds we’ve maintained with the kids, and will keep working to maintain those relationships well into their adulthoods. Our family of five — almost seven, with the significant others — is doing just fine.
But what I wouldn’t give to be around someone who really knows me, like my sister. Or my oldest brother who honored my love of baseball and wordplay. Or my Grandpa, who gave me my dimples but died when I was a year old. To overhear conversations about my mother’s Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill, siblings who fought like angry cats.
This is not my year for making new traditions. It’s been a year of self-examination, of looking back in time both in the recent past and in the long-distant past, and gathering information. There have been moments of sudden understanding, when fabled stories passed around like rumors within the family suddenly make sense. There have been realizations that what I learned as a child was a complete fabrication. I’ll be sorting through the stacks of material I’ve learned this year — about myself, Tim, and my distant and not-so-distant relatives — and ponder how we have all survived difficult circumstances in our own times. I’ll sit with this family-sized hole and try to figure out what it would take to close that gap, and if it’s even possible.