Thursday, August 14, 2008


My Grandfather in law passed away yesterday. Ever since Bonnie Jean and I married I've known he was very weak. Barely made it out to our wedding. But still its unexpected when it happens. I was a little surprised how much its hit me. Never knew him that well, only met him a few times. I was verging on tearing up when I asked my manager for time off for the family events coming up. I was telling Janet (my manager) how Bonnie Jean was much closer to her grandparents than I'd ever been to mine and I just choked up a little. Hit me by surprise, but then, since when have strong emotions given me much warning of their coming?

The closeness of extended family among my in laws has always struck me as a little strange, in fact made me a little jealousy for time by myself with Bonnie Jean that I realized wasn't forth coming because major holidays were centered around grandparents, not married couples and kids. But its such a different feel to walk into their 'compound' where all the married adults and even some of their adult children who lived in the area together pitched together and purchased a very large home in which they could all live together with the grandparents. Perhaps it wasn't all the siblings there (obviously not my wife's immediate parents) but everyone was welcome, no massive gaps, no seething family politics boiling just under the surface. A place where the family could be together, be weird, and be themselves. And to a certain extent join in and be myself. One of the only places on earth I'll probably tell a complete stranger they made a Joule of a comment and have them respond "Watt, it was nothing special" and have someone else respond "Ohm my" without any misunderstanding and without the sense that my behavior is tolerated out of public generosity other than by a different complete stranger protesting that our puns are reVOLTing.

Describing this living arrangement to a professor he responded that that was obviously a family that had created transcended human beings because no one but the transcended could live so close together with immediate family into adulthood without them wanting to rip each others throats out (paraphrasing of course). Just thinking of my own broader family now and I think I have to agree. Maybe give it 20 years so that all of us are well into adulthood. Then maybe things will be different.

But for now I'll have to settle for having lost some opportunity to better know and understand
a patriarch who could preside over such a family.


Andy said...

Sometimes life has strange coincidences. Denise's grandfather just died on the 4th and was buried on Saturday. I didn't really know him. Whenever I visited I felt a bit awkward because he had a bad relationship with Denise's father. Since he died we have learned a bit more about him and I think that I understand him a bit more than I did when he was alive.

He served in the Korean War, but he wouldn't talk about the experience. He drank a lot after he came back from the war and he had a temper, but he was fiercely protective of his grandchildren. In the week before he died, he told his home health aide that he killed women and children when he was in Korea. Although it hasn't been widely reported, the US had a policy of shooting refugees during the war under the assumption that fighters were escaping by disguising themselves as refugees. The experience was obviously very traumatic for him, but also one that he felt needed to be kept secret. I can't imagine what it must feel like to have killed children. Knowing what he experienced, his alcoholism makes much more sense. I feel sad that I didn't get to know him better while he was alive. I feel ashamed for having judged him too harshly.

His funeral brought together a lot of family members. I spent most of last week with Denise's grandmother and Aunt Sylvia. Being around them is quite different than being with our family. Although we don't have very much in common, I feel very much at home around them. They are very relaxed, warm, and friendly. They don't really have many expectations about who I should be. They just accept me as I am. We had a lot of time to talk and share time together without having to "do" anything.

Since the funeral was so soon after the recent family reunion, I couldn't help comparing my two families. I felt like the reunion very structured both in terms of time and theological narrative. I felt like we were so busy being together that we didn't really have time for togetherness. I went home feeling like I wanted to spend time with my siblings, yet I had just spent a week with them.

I also felt like the experience of family that we had was distinctly defined by a theological narative of family. While the church is supposed to augment family, in my experience in our family it seems to have formalized family and absorbed the family. In our family, family seems to be defined by church events, morning and evening prayers, and Family Home Evening. We didn't really spend much time together when it wasn't FHE. In fact we often moved FHE from Monday to some other day because we couldn't all be there on Monday. If we were going to do something together on Saturday, that often counted as FHE. I'm not against religion, but it sometimes feels like we need to have an opening prayer to hang out and play a board game.

For most of us this kind of family structure isn't a problem, but I don't feel like I fit into the narrative. Of course I'm welcome to be part of the narrative, but I don't really want to be. This doesn't mean that I don't value family. I don't really talk about these things, and I usually feel like I'm not supposed to. I don't feel like I'm the only one. If Brianna marries Tim, I don't think that their lives will really fit well into the family narrative either. We are nearly half the siblings, but when the family gets together it seems like the need to pass on the religion and narrative to the next generation outweighs the need to include us. We, after all, are excluding ourselves. On the other hand, you have to love the family you have and not the one that you wish you had. I'm not sure how that is supposed to work, but I'm pretty sure that it isn't.

Often I feel like I have nothing to say when we are all together. There are so many things that I feel like I'm not supposed to say, that finding anything to talk about becomes a challenging mental game. It seems that movies, music, politics, religion, and philosophy are all generally off limits. They all lead back to religion somehow. Basically I shouldn't talk about anything that matters to me. I guess I could talk about what my kids did last week if I had any.

As I get older, I am becoming less worried about fitting in with others expectations and more concerned with being authentically myself. Being around my family makes me feel less authentic than anything else. When we come together we all self censor ourselves to fit into family expectations. We are all quite different, but we seem all the same when we are together. I personally want to know my siblings, and not just the parts of them that fit the expectations. I'm not sure how long it will take to get there, but I hope it isn't 20 years.

CrouchingOwl said...

Andy that was beautifully said. I think in our family so many of the normal internal bonds are so weak that the external formal bonds step in to keep things going. Thats better than all hell breaking loose but your right there's an emptiness involved. The reunion was emotionally exhausting for me as I tried to bridge those gaps between the external formal and the internal individual realities.

I used to be stronger at doing that. Perhaps we all used to be stronger at doing that. But for me at least, so much of myself has been given to Bonnie Jean and building our own life that I can't do it the same way I used to. Most of me says thats ok, but part of me sorrows.

I miss late night basement visits. I always loved coming into your room to watch you because you were always doing or saying something interesting. Then and now out of all the family I resonate with you more than anyone.

We need to talk on the phone more. Your post touched a lot more chords than I think I want to respond to by blog.