Posted by: Kate | December 7, 2008

Family is Complicated

My grandmother is dying.

Sometime within a week, or so I’m told third-hand.  She’s in Florida, where she and my grandfather have been living for the past several years.  They’re originally from upstate New York, moved south like any good, well-trained socialite-wannabe of a certain persuasion, and expected the grandchildren to come flocking down to inundate them with visits during spring breaks and family vacations.

I don’t know if any of the rest of the family ever visited.  This half of the family, my father’s family, essentially refused to allow me to grow up.  They never acknowledged that, once I went away to college, I might not assume that every invitation and Christmas card sent to my parents’ house inherently included me.  Which I did not; I wasn’t living there, so letters sent to that house were not for me.  None of them came to my college graduation in 1998, and after I moved to Boston – no longer even returning to my parents’ house for vacations – I stopped hearing anything, at all, from any of them.  Occasionally I would hear, through my father, of a party or event that was scheduled, but I was never invited to them.

When Willem and I were planning our wedding, the selection of the wedding party was an angst-filled and controversial process, a story for another day.  We ended up inviting one cousin from my father’s side, a girl I had been close with as a child despite being six years older than she, and I thought it all went well.  I didn’t realize, at the time, that this was going to be the last time we would ever be cordially around each other; that six months later, I would not be invited to her high school graduation, and that years down the road I would learn of her marriage and first baby through the family grapevine and almost as the punchline to a joke rather than as a story about someone I once knew and cared about.

I haven’t seen most of my father’s family since June 2005, when my great-grandmother died.  They handled it poorly, both the funeral and the aftereffects, and after watching these people behave in absolutely embarrassing and despicable ways, I asked to be removed from the annual Christmas gift name-swap.  I didn’t want to continue exchanging random gifts with strangers just because we happened to be related.

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.

Because, really, I don’t think it takes much for family to show an effort.  I hear from my kids’ godparents a few times a year, mostly cards on Christmas and birthdays and the occasional email.  Likewise for my mother’s parents, and Willem’s grandparents.  I don’t expect them to suck up to me or chase me down, just to show a little effort on their end once in a while.

Then there was the Camp Debacle of 2006, which cemented my estrangement from that family.  I said my internal goodbyes, came to terms with it as best I could, and moved on.

So hearing about my grandmother’s illness and impending death, now, brings on a wide array of conflicting thoughts, but not a lot in the way of true emotion.  I feel benignly sorry for her, like I would for anyone with a serious illness, but I don’t feel a sense of personal sadness or loss. I don’t need to go visit her to gain any sort of closure or resolution for myself, and it sounds as though she wouldn’t even recognize me, much less be capable of communication.

I worry for my dad, a little, and I did offer to go down to Florida with him if he needed, or wanted, my company and support.  I wasn’t willing to leave with him today, because we’ve had tickets to see the Nutcracker in Boston for months, and to me, the present, loving family I have now is more immediately important than the former, fake family I had as a child.  But I was willing to fly down on Monday or Tuesday, he could meet me at the airport, and then I could stay for however long (God bless unemployment) and drive back with him.

He declined, so far, citing his own ambivalence about going and his understanding that the family has not treated me with the kind of positive regard and attention that would warrant a trip across the country for a deathbed visit.  She wasn’t willing to make things better in health, and sickness does not automatically erase past misbehaviors.  I think – I hope – that if he changes his mind, he will let me know so that I can go down and be there for him.

One more thing to mull over, a new host of emotions and thoughts I wasn’t looking to work through.  So much work, family is.  Even when they’re not really family anymore.



  1. Yep. Family is hard. I desperately wanted to see my grandmother before she died last march, but she told people she didn’t want family coming to watch her die. She didn’t even want her sons visiting. It was very hard.

  2. I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. I completely understand your conflicting feelings. My sister and I had a really hard time dealing with the death of my mom’s mother 8+ years ago – not because we were grieving, but because we were sad for my mom, angry at Grandma for being so emotionally distant while she was alive, relieved that she wasn’t suffering anymore, etc. Family is certainly complicated. But more often than not, well worth the complication.

  3. She’s one of your ingredients..She’s part of the past, and gave you the good things you remember that also have made you into who you are now. I always think every sweet good human interaction with little ones melds with all the good things that happen to them. I remember days I’ve had with visiting children when we all connected. Some haven’t ever come again, but I know the good day we had is part of them forever even if they don’t remember me.
    Her time with you wasn’t long, but you did connect and appreciate each other. Sometimes that’s all you get.

  4. You’re right to view it as doing something more for your father, than for your grandmother. He probably has similar conflicts. I’m sorry that your holidays are tinged with this particular loss on top of the loss of your job. Even more reason, as you rightly say, to savor the magic with your children and those who mean the most.

  5. I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. But gee, I just thought all of that was normal, my family is the same way. Thanks for pointing out the lunacy of what I take for granted as “normal.” Now I don’t have to be doomed to be the same way.

  6. I am sorry to hear about your grandmother. I agree with how you are handling it, and being there for your dad if/when he needs you is the best way that you can be. Hugs!

    Of course the selfish side of me can say if you were driving with him, and driving down I-75 to get there…. 😉 But the Nutcracker is definately worth missing that. 😡

  7. Ok so the 😡 was supposed to be blowing a kiss….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: