Tonight, I will be driving over to have dinner with my Grandma. This has been an impossibility, the casualness of it, the just-stop-in-for-dinner-ness of it, for my entire life. As a kid living in Maryland and later South Carolina, I remember road trips into Virginia and how, just like I thought Ronald Reagan looked suspiciously like my Pop-Pop, I noticed the signs all along the George Washington Parkway to Mt. Vernon had little profiles on them, and logically thought they were pictures of my Gammie, since that was the way to her house and the outline was of a person with a ponytail.
My cousins were partially raised by my grandparents, and it always made me a little bit jealous that when we visited, my brother and I had to explain our lives and our friends; we didn’t speak the language of everyday like my cousins did. I tried to connect with my Gammie over photos and stories of friends & school, with my Pop-pop through hesitant conversations in French and later, surprisingly, my account of skydiving; he’d been a paratrooper in WWII and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him perk up as much as he did when he finally had someone to share that experience with.
I have a small family: mom, dad, me, my younger brother. On my mom’s side it’s her sister, brother and his wife, two cousins, and I grew up with both my grandparents. My dad was an only child and his father died before I was born. Going to see his mom in New Jersey was a longer trip but her house was full of smoky laughter and homemade pies. She always wore sparkly sweaters and shorts with ankle socks, with soft tan skin and perfectly sprayed red hair. Looking back, I think I inherited some of her big personality. She passed away when I was in college and sometimes I still feel like she’s standing right next to me; I can hear her trademark laugh and I crave a reuben sandwich or peanut butter pie.
I’m the oldest of the three grandchildren, by six years. My brother and our cousins are much closer in age. Of course I love them very much but I’ve never experienced the friendship some people have with their siblings and cousins. I’ve always had to be the responsible one. The one that sets out on her own first, the one that sets a good example, the one that sets the table for dinner.
My parents separated two years ago, right on cue with my Quarterlife Crisis. They never fought, my family has never been one that talks about uncomfortable things, but I knew they weren’t happy for a long time. Just about from puberty until I left home for college, my mom was stressed out, tense, my dad was on the computer or in a book, disconnected, and my little brother, who suffered from depression, was asleep or watching movies. I was always busy, the perfect AP student, immersed in extracurriculars and a social life, coming home only for dinner or to sleep.
I’ve never really spent any alone time, since I was five, with any of my extended family. I don’t have dinner with my aunt and uncle or shop with my cousins, without there being other family members around. The only exception to this was when my cousin, 10 years my junior, visited me in LA; I was amazed at how similar we are & how well we got along. This was a new connection for me. Usually, I’m with them for the holidays and then I’m gone. I’ve never thought much about it, but when I Skype’d my family from Australia last Christmas day, my Gammie cried.
Just like when I was a child, flipping through desperately to find the page the rest of the family is on, I am an outsider. When my Pop-pop had alzheimer’s, I was stunned to see the 80 pound stranger he’d become and thankful that I could fly away, pretend it wasn’t happening. But I missed his final days; the night he died, almost everyone else was there, sitting around the kitchen table, crying and telling stories. I found out the next day.
I love my independence but I’m nostalgic for a connection I’ve never had. Don’t get me wrong, my family is very loving and I don’t think any of them would consider me “out of the loop,” but I haven’t lived on the same coast or sometimes the same continent as them for the past 7 years. When we talk, it’s formalities; I’m jealous of friends with big loud families who tease each other over games of volleyball or have weekly dinners in crowded kitchens; their love is obvious, obnoxious.
I’m the protagonist in the sappy holiday movie who needs to find the meaning of family.
I realize that from my family, I learned to love from a distance. I learned the ability to shut down, close off or leave when things get rough. I learned tight smiles, changes of topic and closed doors on an uncomfortable subject. It’s easy for me to say goodbye and set out on my own; it’s a lot harder for me to accept a person daily, with all their flaws and fears.
But they also taught me loyalty and what it means to unconditionally love & support someone, and to selflessly give. My parents raised my brother and me to be honest, caring, kind, intelligent people. We had dinner as a family every night. They taught me strength and that we never stop learning and growing, and that just because there is a distance doesn’t mean there isn’t love. Through the lack of it growing up and through the recent development of it, I learned the importance of real, open communication. They have always been, and will always be there for me with accepting love, no matter what. I know this.
When I hit my QLC, my mom was the first person I called. I felt like a failure and she assured me I wasn’t. I felt like a wreck and she put me back together. I felt completely alone and her voice was like a hug. It was the lowest point of my life, and never once did it occur to me that she was going through a divorce & it was probably the lowest point of hers, too. She was just there for me, any time of day or night. Thank you, momma.
Our families make us who we are, crooked smiles, too-loud laughs, bruised hearts and all. Knowing who they’ve made us is our beginning; building on that is our journey. Family are the people to whom, no matter how far away you run, you can always come home.
So here I am.