the things that pass for knowledge I can't understand"--D Fagen
During one of the several telephone calls I made during an extremely long airport layover last night, an old friend mentioned her theory that genetics matter far more in shaping personality than science ever recognizes. I pretend to no vast (and, for matter, no significant and probably no material) knowledge of DNA and birthrights and what have you. But the holiday season brings to my mind the incredible imprint of family upon oneself. Is it nature? Is it nurture? I have no idea. I just know it is pervasive.
Sometimes I look at the wide variety of "growing up experiences" that my friends and acquaintances experienced, and I marvel that we all speak the same language about what living can be for each of us. I know people who experienced the kindest family experiences, and people whose childhoods included liberal doses of Hell. I wonder sometimes why some folks emphasize a torment hereafter, when a sizable part of the population crosses the Styx every day upon waking.
But as this Thanksgiving draws upon us, I'm struck by that secret language of family so many of us speak. It's fashionable (and often true, in the way fashionable ideas can be) to focus on the scars which one's childhood places upon one's psyche. I don't minimize this possibility--all too many of us, myself strongly included, live out things in our adult lives which derive directly from childhood experiences. But I write this post about another part of the heritage so many of us derive from family. This is the twin heritage of shared understanding and of shared incomprehension.
I'm one of the fortunate ones--I count my childhood as exceptionally happy. I was one of those kids who loved books, sandlot sports and hobbies of all sorts. My brother and I were virtually the same age, and our sister, though five years younger, was always treated as a contemporary. We played, we fought, we matured. We grew up in a small town in which everyone left their car keys in the cars at night, and in which one could do and dream almost anything, largely because there was essentially nothing to do. I have a lot of memories that seem like Thomas Kinkeade kitsch, such as taking my quarter allowance to the drugstore counter and plunking it down for a huge chocolate milkshake made in one of those giant metal cups. We went to Sunday school on Sunday, then ate roast beef that seemed as though it had been cooked for years, and played fervently under the pecan trees in the side yard.
One learns so much about the "family" people in one's life that never can be erased. This is not the academic "book learning" with which I came to fall in love from about age 8 on. Instead, this is that feeling that one truly knows a relative who is truly entirely different from oneself. During my childhood, my brother, some 13 months younger, and I, seemed like polar opposites. I was more sentimental, more expressive and wide-ranging, and filled with more self-doubt. He was quieter, brighter, perhaps a bit less diffuse, and more certain of his paths. When we were kids, we argued, as siblings do, because we understood each other rather well, but frequently found ourselves frustrated at our differences. Now, we live fifteen minutes from one another, and we are still somewhat different people inside, but we seem to me to be much more akin to than different from one another. When I was a kid, on Sundays in which the church had communion, the "bread" was a paper thin circular wafer, on which had been stamped some appropriate Christian imagery. I feel that the folks in my family had been stamped with some common stamp on our individual wafers, which permeated our own communion. My father, a country doctor who got out of school and headed back to the country as soon as he could, made very different choices than I did in life. But the similarities between us are so palpable. My mother and I can speak for hours on all and sundry topics, as we share a common base of outlooks despite many dissimilarities in our "beliefs" and "ideas".
As I get ready to go "home" tonight to Arkansas to see my family at Thanksgiving, I also ready myself for those curious family pulls that I believe many of us experience. I find being with my family extremely comforting and relaxing in many ways. I find that certain of my family members can 'pull my chain' in ways nobody in my "grown up life" can do. I am always intrigued by that feeling that I know people so very well, and we all bear a common imprint "this is a family", but we are all so different. At the holidays, this makes for all sorts of interesting dynamics.
It's as though we all sit at some perpetual childrens' table, at which we never quite leave behind the issues and dilemmae we experienced as kids. My father is still as apt to comment that I need a haircut as he was in 1974, when I probably did need a haircut (I do kinda miss having feathered hair and a sky blue leisure suit). My mother will still insist on doing too much of the work of preparing and serving the meal. My sister will frequently choose to travel elsewhere at the last moment just before the holidays--partly a "family reaction" thing, perhaps, but largely because there are so many things in her life and so little time to do them all. My brother and his wife and kids will wheel in, and his kids will adjourn to the upstairs television to play a video game or two. When I was a kid, we kids might similarly have adjourned for television parades or sandlot football.
As I get older, I see the important of creating family traditions and not just living out the old family dysfunctions. I love that people revel in "traditions". When I was in college and law school, we had a "traditional" touch football game every Thanksgiving weekend among many of the kids and young men of my parents' home town. I believe the little Methodist church in my own little home town still does the "living Nativity" that we did when I was a kid--frozen teenagers standing on the church steps like some imaginary tennis-shoed gospel book. I was a pretty hip guy in shepherd's garb, though we moved before I could graduate to wise man. I liked having these traditions which gave bedrock to our lives, but I now realize that we all create our own traditions in every thing we do. I believe this is a very good thing.
I believe that part of the frustration in these gatherings with people we love more than life itself is that sense that we are all in "this groove" from which we cannot escape. But perhaps the true Thanksgiving comfort is that we can and must and do escape the traditions in which we feel trapped, every day. I listened on Sunday to a novelist describe how she felt like the creator of her own universe. Although she was speaking of writing fiction, we actually all create a good bit of our own traditions and behavior. Although the language of the sacred is often a bit clunky, I nonetheless believe that we must all regard our participations in life as our own holy moments, which we must create as surely as if we were telling the first myth to the first waiting audience.
Family matters involve so much baggage, of people who know us too well, of people who do not know us at all. But this holiday, I believe I will make a more conscious effort to work out my personal family salvation with fear and trembling. Rather than merely rejecting the things I do not understand among my family members, I want to focus on making those mental photographs which are so useful in processing my view of my world. These are my parents, these are my siblings, and these are my siblings' kids. This is my wife and I, helping my mother hang premature xmas decorations. This is the school at which I attended with almost no poise. This is the schoolground where we hurled the footballs. This is my fishing lake, the local Civil War battlefield, the bakery with the incredible sheepherders' bread. Here are my family members, posing in front of the large old, southern colonial home, while leaves fall. Here is a gingerbread man, there is one of those odd casseroles based on marshmallows or pickled vegetables.
Here is my frustration, a neat little pearl, buried deep within me, shiny, and oddly blue. It's a world of unreasonable expectations which arose from this elephant's graveyard in which I grew up, and which now resides in an elephant memory in my adult "afterlife". I wish to pull out that pearl, and cast it aside, and let it sink into the earth with the elephant bones. I have had so many things occur for which I am thankful. I can leave my frustration behind, and just see my holiday as a digicamera, with which I will snap and assemble the memories I will store on the hard drive of a new gem I would like to grow inside, where that pearl of failed hopes and silly dreams once resided. I have had enough of family-as-lack, and wish instead to take all that I can from my interactions with my family, and recognize that I must create for myself what I cannot take.
My wife and I used to spend Thanksgiving at a wonderful restaurant in the Crescenta Valley, eating the most exquisite food after a brisk hike in the Angeles National Forest. We would then wander the Descanso Garden, looking at Autumn roses in 70 degree weather. This was our holiday "tradition", because dealing with travelling at the holiday was so difficult. Now we alternate between our parents' Arkansas and Kansas City homes. We love both our families; we are each blessed with in-laws we prize and cherish. But I like to think that we no longer live in the shadow of our childhoods, but now cast our own shadows, for which we must thank or blame only ourselves. We'll never quite leave behind that family imprint on our individual communion wafers, but I believe we may be forging our own communion wafers, and for that I am very thankful. Family is in my mind more than just blood relationship, but an idea which we make reality with those for whom we truly care. I wish everyone could have a wonderful holiday with either "blood family" or the "family of the heart" this holiday season.