Family-Based Something

I spent the weekend with my mom, visiting my only living grandparent in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they have real winter weather. I haven’t been there for a couple of years but not much has changed about the structure of the visit: we get up for an early flight, we shiver, we sit in the tiny room which houses the whittled-down remains of my grandmother’s things and chat together good-naturedly, we try to be comfortable with the occasional silences of dementia. It’s a quick visit but a long couple of days; I managed to start and finish my most complicated embroidery project yet (Grammy loved it!).

She is more frail and fragile than it seems possible for a person to be, but she was much more lucid this time and participated much more in our visit than I had expected. No talks about what to wear to her funeral this time—we discussed my sister’s visit in October, instead, and my ongoing visa stuff and even politics (she’s an Obama supporter). She is very up-front about the dementia—when she doesn’t know what’s going on she’ll just say that: “What are we doing now?” and someone will tell her and then she goes and does it and that’s that.

She talked a little bit about her life and her marriage and her work over the weekend and I learned a little more about her—she wasn’t allowed to touch the sewing machine or work in the garden when she was little, her mother didn’t cuddle her when she was little, she knows how to write shorthand and wanted to teach “commercial skills” before she married, she wishes she had gone back to school and got a degree, she has traveled to Germany and Italy, she doesn’t like dogs except for the border collie my mom had as a kid. I am starting to understand how poor she was for most of her life—my mother, the third of five, was the first baby for which my grandmother had an indoor bathroom—and how hard she has tried to be and to stay independent in every sense. I think she never planned to live to be ninety-three. I think she has felt thwarted and lonely for much of her life, as I am starting to believe that many, if not most, of the women in my family have.

All this is to say that I don’t know my grandmother very well. We have written letters at various times in my life and I generally enjoy talking with her but I am coming to the same realization I come to any time I spend any time with any of my family: they’re lovely people, many of them, but I don’t know any of them and they don’t know me. I don’t know if that’s how it has to be or whether I can ever change that–all I know is that both my parents were trying to get away from their families when I was born and that I grew up at least one plane flight from all the various strands and have always felt closer to the people I’ve chosen to love rather than the people I am related to; I don’t know if this is just about convenience and proximity or if there lurks a fundamental incompatibility in there somewhere.

I thought about all these things as I cursed and growled over my embroidery hoop, as I did the dishes, as I laughed and chatted with my twenty-one year old Redwings-fan cousin (“Do they have hockey in New Zealand? No? I’m not visiting.”), as I bought my grandmother the most decadent body butter I could find on short notice (she loved it!). I thought about my mom, flying halfway across the country every month to give her mom a manicure and to pay her bills and to get her the yogurt and sweet potatoes and iced tea she likes, trying to make whatever is between them that I don’t really know about be all right. I wondered what it will be like for me and my sister when our mom is ninety-three and from where we will be flying in to take care of her. I wondered what it will be like to be ninety-three myself, and to have, no one, probably, to take care of me.

I don’t know what my life would have been like if I’d grown up near extended blood relations and had more than a politely genial relationship with anyone with whom I share any DNA, any more than I know what it would be like if my parents hadn’t divorced or if I had gone to Pennsylvania instead of California for college, anything like that. If I’m missing some sense of connection to a larger…family-based…something…I (clearly) have no idea what that would be like. And since I will never have my own family, I guess I will never really understand. That is the really weird part.


  1. I can identify with a lot of what you write (beautifully, as usual) in this post. I grew up visiting my dad’s parents a couple of times a year and my mom’s parents every few weeks after church, but it wasn’t this “I loved my grandma and we had such great talks, we still talk every week on the phone to this day” experience that I’ve heard expressed by other people. I enjoyed visiting my grandparents and loved them, but I felt removed from them, and I was OK with the low frequency with which I saw them. My friends, though? Well, we see a woman (and her husband) with whom I have been friends since kindergarten at least once a week, and joke with them that we should just have a joint house and checking account. We’re in each others’ lives to the degree that other people are in the lives of their parents and grandparents, and this seems natural to me.

    This has manifested itself now in being totally unused to the closeness of other families. It’s perfectly normal for some people to, say, attend the same church as their parents, and have Sunday dinner all together with parents, kids, and grandkids, every week. If I see my in-laws more than once a month I get irritated and start to feel like it’s too much… and I love them, it’s not that, but I can’t fathom being around them all the time in a way that many people would consider totally normal. I am hesitant to have kids and have even (and now would be a good time to point out that most of what I’m typing here is just me in all my selfish, antisocial glory, not things that I am attributing to/identifying with you) considered the fact that we would almost certainly see MIL/FIL more often if we had kids as a not-insignificant additional deterrent to having them.

    We also have avoided giving them a key to our house. Now granted, my MIL once expressed that she wished she could have a key to my then-boyfriend’s dorm room so she could drop in whenever she needed to, so part of the key thing is based on her maybe more-familiar-than-average personality, but part of it is just that it’s not part of “normal” in my world for non-immediate family to appear at/in my home without significant notice and planning. It’s also telling that when we gave my dad a key for a specific purpose (I can’t remember what), he took great pains to return it to us right away and implicitly convey that he would never enter our house without specific permission. I don’t think we prompted this by conveying any concern that he would do any such thing… it’s just how my family interacts with each other, at a polite remove. My husband’s family have a farm, and he saw his aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents all the time–so I’m sure it’s somewhat incomprehensible to my MIL that people would be the least bit concerned about family members having keys. Moving about easily in each others’ lives is what you do in my husband’s family, and what you do not do in my family.

    I’m starting to get a little closer to my mom. I hung out with her today and then called her from Target tonight to tell her they have the crib bumpers she was looking for, something that would normally never have occurred to me (she typically won’t even call here unless it’s important for fear of “imposing” on us… again, I don’t think we did anything to provoke this, it’s just how it is). But then my brother has a brand-new baby–and he and his wife live 5 minutes from my parents and do previously unheard-of things like call my parents up to go to dinner on the spur of the moment–so maybe my sister-in-law’s personality combined with the new grandchild marks the point where my family starts to approximate the “normal” closeness and messiness that others seem to find so effortless.

  2. I am pretty sure there is some hockey in the South Island (except it’s called “ice hockey”, because “hockey” means field hockey). It’s probably not very good by north american standards though.