Posted by: Kate | March 3, 2008

Distant

“Hey, Kate, it’s Dad. I just wanted to call and let you know some family news. Your grandmother fell on Saturday, and she broke her pelvis. She’s in the hospital now, but is doing well, and they think she’ll be home in a couple of days. I’m going to send flowers to the house in a couple of days, so just let me know if you want me to put your name on the card. Love you, hon. Bye.”

There’s a lot of shoulds that go along with that phone message. I should feel bad for my grandmother. I should call her. I should write. I should be close enough to her that she – or my grandfather – would have called me themselves. I should talk to my kids about their Grandma Carol and let them know what’s going on. I should plan to stop and visit with them when we’re in Florida, because we’ll be within an hour’s drive. I should want my name on the card.  I should worry about her. I should care.

But I can’t. I can’t do any of it, because I can’t do the last thing. I can’t care.

I’d like to. As a child, my summer vacations were spent as a small, flat rock skipping from relative to relative: a week with Grandma Carol, a week with Nonny, three or four with Grandma O, a week with my aunt Sue, some time at Girl Scout Camp, a week at another summer camp, until suddenly it’s time for school again. I loved all of my relatives, in their different ways, and had blissful, carefree visits with each. I have fond memories of them all.

But then, as an adult, I started to get to know my relations as people, with personalities and values of their own. I learned, in a conscious way rather than the childlike taken-for-granted, that my mother’s parents are salt of the earth, simple, down home rednecks who would give you the shirt off their back and a place to stay without question. Even when, sometimes, there are questions that really should be asked. They’re just there for you, not interfering or meddling and sometimes even seeming a bit out of touch with fashion and media and reality, but the moment you say the word, they’re ready with arms outstretched.

I took them for granted, which I suppose is good for a child to be able to to. I just accepted that they would love and care for me no matter what level of infantile outbursts or teenage angst I dished up. They were never slender, or trendy, or made up and polished, and I sometimes mistook their simplicity for cluelessness. They both worked at the gun factory in town, he in manufacturing and she as a receptionist. I felt a hovering dread and intensity just watching the building out of the car window as we passed; I could never imagine entering those heavy, dark doors.

On the other side of the family, at the bottom of the hill but light-years away, were my father’s parents and three sisters. They were everything my mother’s family was not: magazine-pretty, well off, socially adept. They were the cool kids, and I desperately, in my mullet-headed, plastic-framed-glasses gawkiness, wanted to be like them. Just to be near them, in the hopes that some of it might rub off on me. My grandfather was an accountant, and my grandmother was an elementary school librarian; one job unfathomable to me and the other the epitome of bliss to a bookwormy, solitary girl. I was in awe of them all, a sort of mass hero-worship, and never saw below the surface because it never occurred to me to look.

Then, as an adult, the reality started to dawn. My father’s family carried not only the appearance of the popular kids, but they had what was too commonly underneath, as well. They were snide, and catty, and full of hurtful gossip. I’d always watched as they smiled at acquaintances and then whispered cutting remarks after they parted, but it took more than two decades for me to realize that they had just the same smiles when they were with me. They never extended an invitation to family gatherings, assuming instead that I would hear about it through my parents and just know when I was expected to show up. Once my parents separated, the expectation shifted to involve a certain level of telepathy; I was to know when to call and find out about events, because they’d stopped calling my parents, as well.

Meanwhile, my mother’s family continues to send my father birthday cards, several years after the divorce. They stand back, a little overawed and intimidated by Willem’s and my combined abundance of master’s degrees, and make the effort to come visit when their health allows. Their simplicity remains steadfast and precious, an anchor in an uncertain world and a single, lone marketing audience for Ray Stevens CDs.

A few years ago, I stopped taking part in my father’s family’s Christmas name-draw. These people were strangers to me; they have not seen any of my last three homes, and have only met my son once, at a funeral. I could go out and buy soulless, impersonal gift certificates every year, or I could stop pretending to value these relationships over other, more real ties. I didn’t send them invitations to our last housewarming party, and I’ve stopped sending Christmas cards to all but my grandparents, and that’s only because I think they may be interested to see photos of their great-grandchildren. Sometimes my grandparents send similarly empty-hearted cards in return, but it’s becoming less frequent.

All of this sounds sad, and it is, when I dwell on it. My aunts were so much fun to be around, always laughing and playing music. My grandparents had a quiet dignity to them that still conveyed some affection and familial pride. I wish that I could share those relationships with my children, to let them get to know this branch of their heritage. But I can’t, because there’s no substance behind it. They’re like cardboard cutouts with frozen, practiced smiles.

But the bigger sense that I have is freedom. There is such a relief to being able to stop pretending, stop going through the motions just because we share a handful of genes. They know where I am, and all it would take is the tiniest gesture in my direction for me to think they wanted some part of my life. But they’ve ignored so many invitations, and neglected such simple relationships, that I had to give myself permission to let go. It’s reasonable to expect a relationship to be a two-way street, I reminded myself, even when it’s family.

So, after years of silence, aside from one horrifying reminder of just how unfamily this family really is, this news of my grandmother’s fall barely gave me a moment’s pause. I’ve spent more time wishing I cared more, than actually caring. My response, upon hearing the news was, “Oh, that sounds painful.” I feel no animosity, but I also feel no empathic concern beyond what I would feel if I heard that Margaret Thatcher had fallen and broken her pelvis. There’s the simple sense of dismay whenever another human experiences hurt, but nothing more personal. It’s just not there.

Even if it should be.

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Responses

  1. Tough one Kate. I still maintain contact with my in-laws even though I’ve been a widow for 25 years. I love them deeply but Ray’s brother and his family – I have little connection with them, they live distant from me but we still catch up at Christmas and yes, soulless vouchers are the order of the day. There’s nothing wrong with them, they just don’t give a shit about us really . . you can choose your friends and all that. I still have this overwhelming obligation to keep in touch and I’m not quite sure why. I completely understand the ‘no animosity, no empathic concern’ concept.

  2. Should, shmoud.

    I don’t know. Sometimes people can surprise you, but it isn’t really enough to be related, sometimes.

    At least you got to spend some time with them. I have a cousin whom I adored. Then, I realized that if she talked that way about everyone else, she was fer shure talking that way about me. So, no more relationship.

  3. Sounds like my brother’s wife’s family. They are …. hard to figure out. I quit bothering to try.

  4. Good God, I love you. I have so many relatives (I originally wrote “family members”) that I feel guilty about not keeping in contact with, not introducing my children to, etc etc…but it comes down to I just don’t care about these people, they don’t care about me, and genes don’t make family.

    I love how you are not afraid to delve into these topics and come to peace with being who you are, not who you “should be.”

    Hugs & thank you. mk

  5. Your so right. It takes more than one person to have a relationship. I’m glad you were able to let go. That can be such a difficult thing to do, but ultimately, worth it.

  6. […] My grandmother, my father’s mother, has always been socially adept, always has her hair done perfectly and face made up before she makes coffee each morning, able to work a crowd and appear completely poised and at east no matter what the circumstances.  She’s nice to chat with, and she does seem to enjoy small children; one of my clearest childhood memories is of sitting around her kitchen table at night, making a Play-Doh feast together while she sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” like a ballad instead of a rollicking kid’s song.  But she never adjusted to me as a grownup, never extended the same telephone calls and efforts that her daughters received.  Which, fair enough, I wasn’t her kid, but I also feel that it takes two to sustain a relationship.  After a while, it became clear that if I stopped calling her or getting in touch, then all contact would simply cease.  After a while longer, I did stop initiating contact, and sure enough, she did not pick up the slack.  Her offense was in the form of neglect, simply to assume that the privilege of sharing genetic material with her was so great as to make things like simple efforts unnecessary. […]


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