On family and other complications
“My family is my strength and my weakness.” – Aishwarya Rai Bachchan
Last weekend we gassed up the minivan and traveled down into the city for a cousin’s graduation party. I barely know this cousin, and I’m not particularly close with this side of the family; nevertheless, the four of us spent three hours chatting superficially and marveling at 1,574 photographs of my young cousin’s journey through childhood. He’s a good kid, truly. I wish I knew him better.
But I don’t. He was raised in my father’s side of the family. Me? I was the surprise product of my father’s second marriage of which, nearest I can figure, they all disapproved. I recall half-hugs, uncomfortable, obligatory conversations and a sort of strained tolerance of my presence. I was raised at a time when grown-ups still thought children oblivious to the world at-large. We weren’t. To this day I’ve never felt a drop of warmth from the lot of them. My father alone among them loved me well.
After the party, because we were in the vicinity and because perhaps I subconsciously needed to counter the lingering abrasiveness, we drove a mile to the street where my grandmother – my mother’s mother – lived when I was a child. We parked on the boulevard lined with centenarian maples, oaks and pines, their soft shade a balm on my skinned spirit. The sun shone down in broken beams, illuminating the cottage nestled between larger, statelier homes – the cottage in which I spent nearly every weekend of my young childhood.
For a moment, I passed the steel lamppost from which I used to swing and ascended the wooden steps to the screened-in porch that smelled at once of age and freshness. I entered the miniscule foyer that had welcomed me so many times, and peered up into the closet where I once perched on the top shelf, a makeshift tower. I crossed the living room beneath the framed Christina’s World print, and into the galley kitchen where Mema stood preparing french toast for my breakfast, which she would slice into perfect squares and set before me with a flourish. The sun shifted and I watched her mix a grasshopper and sit with my mother beside the whitewashed fireplace. I crept into her bedroom and laid my head on the down pillow as their grown-up talk lulled me. I felt the warmth of her presence as she later found me dozing and heard her nightingale voice sing Sweetest Little Fellow as her rough fingers brushed my forehead…
My daughter’s laugh snatched me from my memory, and I was back on the street. My husband chatted with the kids, pointing out flowers and telling stories, keeping one watchful eye on me because he knows me so well. Mema has been gone for years now, and he knows how badly I wanted to walk into that house, now inhabited by strangers, and peel back the walls and peel back time – if only for a moment – and feel the joy and safety of love unconditional.
We walked along the boulevard as I let the memories flow. My husband squeezed my hand and we swapped childhood stories as the kids listened. We doubled back after a while and I snapped a picture of Mema’s old house for nostalgia as we passed a second time. The curtain moved in the front window, and all reverie ceased as we hurried away so as not to seem creepy.
As we drove home, I realized how much I have for which to be thankful. Mema showed me what it felt like to be cherished (my parents loved me too, of course, but that love can be…complicated, no?). Her love made me want to be a better person and to know how a family should be. My father’s family taught me that a child can’t help the circumstances into which s/he is born, and that a child should never bear the burden of the disenchantment of those who came before. My own family, my beloved husband and children, taught me that I get to choose – and remind me that despite life’s changes and challenges, I am still loved unconditionally.
We carry so much with us into adulthood, but we needn’t pass it all on.