FAMILY LIKE A WISHBONE?
I grew up in a house built by my father. Behind it and constructed of lumber treated to withstand many years of weather, was a small log cabin. It belonged to me and occupied the yard like an eternal child of the full-grown house in front of it. When my parents divorced, the house was signed over to my mother who eventually sold it and its progeny in the backyard. My father moved into a mobile home, my mother into a smaller house in a neighborhood and not on a plot of land out in the county, like we knew growing up. Neither of these places ever really felt the same as when I was a kid and now on the other side of a divorce, neither did our family.
A few years later as I was finishing college, my grandfather offered me his house. It was becoming too much for his care but he wanted to keep it within the family. On the living room side of the kitchen counter were hidden collectible coins under the carpet. My grandfather gave me a few over the years and over the years I lost most all of them. On the screened back porch with bright green plastic carpet was a small refrigerator full of canned Tab and bottled Coca-Colas. Just outside the porch I learned the three speed manual transmission on his riding lawnmower. I raced it around the backyard with the blade disengaged, never actually cutting the grass.
In considering my grandfather’s offer, I thought if I were to live in this house with the green plastic carpet I would be an adult never fully realized, like a child drinking bottled Cokes through a straw living in a house belonging to someone older who was always away at work or on vacation. Although the mortgage was paid and at the very least I could have rented or sold it I declined my inheritance.
Family like a wishbone, is tempting to break wanting for a dream, someone else’s inheritance, a different last name. But family is a fulcrum. Wendell Berry says, “it is the purpose of the family to stay together. And like a community, a family doesn’t stay together just out of sentiment. It is certainly more pat to stay together if the various members need one another or are in some practical way dependent on one another.” Like the houses in which we were raised, like Moses and the burning bush, this is our task and thrust. Everything else, better or worse pivots upon family.
What is a child if not resting with nothing and wrestling with everything, first taking comfort in loved ones and familiar places then like a portrait becoming slightly guarded, hoping for understanding and to know the relationship within a frame? Fortunately family like the photograph isn’t just for making sense of an otherwise confusing circumstance, an odd beat or particular time. It is rarely profound and often achingly normal. Without much concern for time a child exists as part of this unit into which he was not invited but rather became. Family also hopes to be without the dependency of time, like a photograph to squash it and curse sentimentality needing neither before nor after nor now, only these moments, the monumental and also less guarded consequences of our familial existence. Family hopes to be succinct with itself, simple concerns and the space we each occupy.
Relative to those spaces however, first being that which exists under the roof of our home, we learn to walk by stumbling across the room jagged and teetering. We learn to chew with our mouths closed and the consequence of baseballs through windows. We learn that family is geometric, the properties of relations and points, one thing leads to another, a continuum. Although extremes might be distinct, self-alignment by being, substance and identity, street signs, and fences regard that this continuum is more like that path we made when learning to walk. More like neighborhood streets than a straight line. Where then if that space is expanded large enough, even seemingly unrelated things relate.
But family dynamic is a soda left on the bumper of a car. When the road is straight it might not move but sloshes about, spilling or falling when driving too fast or the road bends too far. How does a family right itself in the sharp curve and the car too fast and tires lifting off the road? Instinct might suggest steering away from the direction the car is falling. But logic proves the opposite best; turn the steering wheel into the direction the car is tilting. With enough time on a long enough path, trouble doesn’t look much different than humming along. Is the evidence of one or the other more true? No more than cracks in the pavement are the topography of a town. Family is not a schism. It exists solely on neither extreme. Respite comes from the most difficult document, the study of a family in the curve. More than that is the need to accept both as one like the beginning and end of a cul-de-sac road.
And too often considered a last resort, post-failure, we return to where we began. Distance was encouraged and perhaps necessary: to move if not on to a destination then somewhere else. Anywhere else but here. Yet all while we wander, home is our destination, lending perspective, recognizing familiarity down the road to the unfamiliar. Distance over time equals speed equals how quickly I can get away. This anxiety is a direct artery from the heart. It pushes you away, intent like Adderall. Know thyself like desire, like wandering in the desert, like manna, like a golden calf. I am lost therefore I am. Know thy youth before old-age sets your bones against trees leaning blocking the sun. Before your one hundred and twentieth birthday. Set out and strike the rock, stretching time far before it bites you on the ass. Enough distance it will like snap like a rubber band. Call home occasionally. Say you’ll be back when you can give more than take and you will live where you are known and know. This is the terms of good economy. Where you feed and are fed. Where you know birthdays, anniversaries and read obituaries. Call and say, “I am coming home if not for awhile then for more.”
So like water we come back shaping and shaped and salty, eroding and one thing certain: family changes to stay the same. Melded like glass perfected by individual grains of sand in magnitude, like a favorite birthday cake every birthday year celebrating an ever changing, ever growing child: last year she learned to walk, last year puberty, this year she married. A baby. Next year divorced. The shore stretches for miles without changing and with time family becomes new and changes the same. Time is so simple in these terms and though it is beautiful, it is our foe.
We come back to the family album, considering it differently now: aunts, uncles, siblings, parents and perseverance. We consider time and its demands and how with the coursing of blood through our veins, blood through family, we fight it. Consider it an extension of the self, looking at oneself by looking at our likeness in others before you. We consider how we look changed or mended and pieced back together now.
Yet if there exist beauty in simplicity there must exist at the least, intrigue in deception: in the application of lipstick, in a suggestive photograph, in denying time. Who is our mother and what is a daughter? What is it for time to confuse the transition from one to the other? For longevity there exist: mother, daughter and performance. A trinity that if deconstructed does not make sense in parts but is neither fully explained by its sum. If we know that we are being performed to, then we are too a performer and there is no truth in the totality of deceit. What is mascara and eye shadow if not for artifice? What does a mother pass to a daughter that she is not asked to hide? Surely something more than fooling time, something more than a charade never fully revealed.
If anything other than elastic, other than long days and shorter years, time is the passing of traits, characteristics and DNA from mother to daughter and to her daughter. Simultaneously independent lives, sets of windshield wipers each with a rhythm occasionally effacing individuality like rain and then falling out of sync again. Unlike the photograph, the family cannot ignore time but like the photograph, time for the family is full of ambiguities. Daughter is like mother but not specifically, a simple beauty in that it is a natural process of life complex with science. But without need for too much thought, she sees what she might become. Perhaps her worst fear or perhaps proud she can say, “I am becoming my mother.”
Other than DNA the good and bad, understanding cooperation and conflict, what might a child inherit from family? Perhaps the less quantified value of where we began, that which existed under the roof of our home. From there we started, left and returned and having gone out again, extended family. Simply put, perspective and appreciation for if not family then interdependency, and if not interdependency, then the inescapable connectivity of time and blood and place, of wood slats and bones, femurs and tibias growing and stretching and aching with aging.
Shortly after I decided not to inherit my grandfather’s house he put it up for sale. But not before it caught fire one night as he slept. It was a wonder he didn’t die. A short in his electric blanket caused the fire but somehow he managed to kick it off and get out. The fire burned like some reminder that family consumes us. But also like family, his bedroom and the back of the house was damaged but not destroyed, on fire but not consumed, confessing through smoke the fortitude upon that which we are hinged.