‘Friends are God’s way of apologizing for families.”
“Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying repetitiveness, like bad wallpaper.”
Isn’t it amusing how your messages to me get the fastest response when you tell me about the latest letter from your mother?
Of all the oddities and surprises of life, families have to be the winner; they seldom make any sense at all, especially to their members.
How could it be that you and I ended up with one another’s families? We were born at the same time; a switch at birth would make perfect sense were it not impossible due to an accident of geography….
We objurgate our families for entirely opposite reasons, you and me.
You got my parents, dammit! I should have had the mom who calls herself Sky, makes jewelry and poems, marches and goes to jail for peace and justice, home-schooled her kids, travelled and adventured with them, and lives her life fearlessly and without reservation.
Is she back in California yet? The last long telephone chat I had with her, she was still at Findhorn.
The man who was born Harold and renamed himself Oti, the man who built for his family dwellings a yurt and a sailboat, who wore his hair in a ponytail until a new faith demanded he shave himself bald, was meant to be my father.
Upset as you are about his present circumstances, I tell you — he is happy. Pete and I visited him again in his cave, and it’s quite cozy, really, and he seems to be in good health.
I would have loved to be an Uma instead of a Heather.
Instead I am delivered (one of those wormholes the quantum physics people speculate about) to Mr. and Mrs. John and Martha Mainstream. Outside of her domestic and child-rearing duties, which she performed well, my mother’s interests were her appearance and an active social life.
It still is, combined now with grandchild-training and community work, both of which she does wholeheartedly and with great panache.
My father’s efforts went into his job. Now he is equally busy doing volunteer work in the community, which he does with as much dedication and commitment as he once poured into his employment.
I grew up in a household whose primary concern was appearances; everything must seem normal because therein lies safety. We had to dress according to the style of the day and the place; we had to behave in a manner beyond reproach, whose reproach was never explained.
The things falling into the mysterious category of acceptability often puzzled me, but questioning was not encouraged.
People who were perceived as different from the established norm were avoided. If I exhibited any such qualifying characteristics, I could be punished in many ways, some subtle, some overt.
The ideas that trickled through this familial shield and excited my imagination I soon learned not to share.
Simultaneously there you were with your family, camping in a yurt on an island, or sailing off the coast of Greece, filling your days dreaming of living in a real house, going to a real school and having parents who stayed in one place and were “normal.”
As you and I built our friendship, I remember how we talked about our families, and how we envied one another’s histories. Both of us struggled to find ourselves away from these families, often referring back to our separate legends as we attained our freedoms, and imagining how much easier it would have been had we indeed been switched at birth.
The common denominator now is how little the essence has changed in our clans. Yours is still messy and in a state of becoming, while mine is tight, tidy, and committed to a state of being. Mine is fixed, yours is in flux.
Yeah, I got a long letter from my mother, too. For two women who have never met, their timing for daughter contact is astonishing.
Mine, too, is another list of “if only you were…” followed by the inevitable list of what has been acquired since our last exchange, with details on where and how much, all salted with tidbits on how well my sibs are doing in their lives (similar to hers, and not so surprisingly, in the same place.)
From our present place of middle age and maturity, I notice how our attitudes have softened. We have learned enough about other childhood experiences to value and appreciate our own.
We laugh, mostly, whereas we used to rage and weep. We acknowledge our good fortune, to have parents who not only housed and fed us and worked hard to do so, but who did their best with what they had to give us what they believed we needed to achieve a good life.
Neither of us can claim abuse; neither of us can say we were neglected, or made to feel unloved. I think we both have seen and heard what constitutes a truly awful childhood, and are damn thankful for our own.
I try to see through my mother’s latest missive; to understand there is love there, and a genuine concern.
My family has become a source of pride, in many ways. They’ve not been afraid to work hard to get what they want and to value what they have. They care for each other and for their community.
We are all able to get together and enjoy one another’s company; I don’t know a lot of families who can make such a claim. And ultimately, regardless of differences, I know they would be there for me if I needed them. You can make the same assertion.
Though my folks chose the main highway, and your folks chose the less trodden paths, they are all good people.
The issue, the burr beneath the saddle, is still the old question: why does it feel that the effort, the work of sustaining these relationships, is only from us?
We both feel hurt by what seems a lack of interest from our families in the things that matter to us — the things we have achieved, the work the world acknowledges and rewards us for, go without mention from our families.
We ask the right questions, pay the proper attention, and celebrate with them the things that bring them pleasure and pride, but our accomplishments go without comment.
I don’t suppose anyone is entirely satisfied with their families of origin; that’s why so many of us create our own sort of family. We find those people who fit us; those who are kin in another way, understanding us without effort, praising our efforts and accomplishments, supporting us in our failures, journeying our paths with us.
For many years these were the ones I spent the most time with and valued the most. They were the ones with whom I felt most my true self.
In their company I am relaxed, unguarded, uncensored and untrammeled. How unlike the woman I am with the antediluvian clan into which I was born; those people who gladly bear the terrible responsibility of knowing everything.
Do you feel better now, Uma, for having been reminded of how small are our sufferings are in the Giant Scheme of Things? I do.
My first dinner club meeting looms. Now that I am almost slender again, (I do miss the bosom though) I’ve decided I will continue with the cooking; Pete would be disappointed if I was to stop, and I really want to be a part of the dinner club.
The collection of recipes begins again, so send some on, please. Good thing you still collect recipes, though I understand you rarely use them any more; what a loss to your family and friends that has been.
I am resolved to curb my enthusiasm, cooking only what is to be immediately eaten, and not necessarily eating all of it. Desserts will be limited, as will breakfast foods featuring syrup and butter.
Hey, Uma! Epiphany! Maybe you liked to cook because Sky didn’t, and maybe I didn’t cook because my mother did; here we are in our middle years and you’ve cut way back on your involvement with food preparation just as I am beginning mine.
We’d better prepare for yet another old wives’ tale turning out to be truth — we become our mothers.
Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.