Sunday, February 10, 2008

Family - Not Family

I've always been closer to my father's family than my mother's. Always. I lived, for a short time, as a toddler in my mother's parents' house. I remember it as a dark, scary time. I remember being happy and relieved when my father took me away from there to go live with him in his parents' house.

I doubt that I saw my maternal grandparents at all during the 3 years I lived with my father, his parents and 3 of his sisters. When I was 5 years old and went to live with my mother, I only saw her family twice a year - at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I resented these visits from the beginning because I really wanted to be with my father's family during these holidays - but this was non-negotiable for my mother. I spent these holidays with her - and we would make the trek from Riverdale to Brooklyn to see her family. Though I'm sure that most years she found someone to give us a ride - there were sometimes when we took public transportation - which meant taking a bus and two trains and would have taken at least an hour and a half.

On the other hand - I don't ever remember my maternal grandparents coming to visit us - even though my grandfather had a car and drove. And I can only occasionally remember my mother's brothers coming to visit - and her older sister - but not her younger one, who was likely too young when I was a kid.

My point is that there was very little contact with my mother's family when I was growing up - and what contact there was, my mother initiated. Not one person in her family made any effort to be a part of my life or know me as a child.

The only exception to this was my mother's younger sister - who at least went so far as to have real conversations with me when we made our regular holiday visits. She even remembered things about me from these conversations - which was evident from the Christmas presents she gave me - usually a book I was very interested in.

But my grandparents and my uncles (my mother's older sister died of Lupus when I was about 11 years old and I don't remember much about her) did not get to know me well in anyway.

On the other hand, my cousins - all of whom are younger than me - grew up around the family. They lived in the house at various times in their lives - and received attention, guidance and the apparent generosity of my grandfather. My youngest cousins were put through private school by him for a number of years.

I never felt any particular resentment about this. I had my father's family for support, love, guidance - and yes to be spoiled rotten with material things as well. But mostly - I just had a sense of family and love - and that was all I needed growing up. To know that they were there for me.

During the years, my mother wasn't there for me in many ways - but my many aunts and uncles and my paternal grandparents were always there to pick up the slack. When I got sick, I was sent to my father's parents' house where my aunts and my grandmother would nurse me back to health. It was there that I got over the measles, mumps, chicken pox, and various lesser childhood illnesses. Throughout my tumultuous teen years when my mother and I were frequently at each other's throats I could always go home to my father's family. Even when that meant someone would have to be up to pay for the $50 cab ride at 2am.

Throughout my life my father's family has been there for me - they are still there for me - and for my girls. And as I grew and matured into a semi-responsible adult - I learned to be there for them too. Few things delight me more than being able to take care of something for my aunts or my father - my grand parents have long since passed away.

Now, with my mother's family, my contact with them has, I suppose, followed the path it started on. Just as they made little effort to see me throughout my childhood, I've made little effort to contact them. And I think this is perfectly normal and natural. But they don't think so.

When I moved back to NYC as an adult - after a few years away in school - and then living in another state - suddenly my mother's family decided that I should be taken into the fold. Well, sort of - again, I was expected to come to them - they did not come to me.

My mother would nag me that I should go and see them. And so I would go - and I would hear about how important family is and that I should come around more - do more with the family - be there for them more.

So I tried. My mother's youngest brother had two young daughters - about 4 and 5 or so at the time. Everyone said that the youngest one had discipline problems and they told her all the time that she was bad. The oldest one was treated like gold and could do no wrong.

Something about the younger girl struck a chord in me and I wanted to help her when it seemed that everyone else in the family just wanted to put her down. So I started spending time with her. She would come and spend weekends with me on a regular basis. Everyone else in the family was happy to be rid of her - including her father - so it was no big deal. I never understood what the problems were, though, because she was always good when she stayed with me - never acted out at all.

I grew to love her and wanted to care for her more and more. I started wondering if my uncle would let her live with me permanently - maybe even let me adopt her.

But then, suddenly, he sent her back to live with her mother, who everyone said was crazy and abusive. And then the girls both disappeared for years. Their mother told the courts that their father abused them and they wouldn't let him see them and then while he was estranged from them - the mother gave up her parental rights and had them put in the foster care system.

it took years for my mother's brother to find his daughters.

But during that time when they were living in my grandparents house with my uncle and I was taking care of the youngest - I tried, very hard to be a part of the family. It just didn't work.

Like my mother, they always seemed to want more. If I was there on Monday, they wanted to know why I hadn't come on Saturday and Sunday too. If I took my cousin to stay with me for 2 days, there would be no one home when I brought her back on the third day - and I would have to suddenly arrange child care - or take time off from work to keep her for another day. And my uncle just flat out took advantage - frequently leaving my cousin with me for days longer than we arranged - by just disappearing. Finally - when he sent my cousins back to live with their mother - I decided that contact with this family just wasn't worth it.

For a couple of years I barely spoke with any of them - though my mother would constantly harass me to call - particularly on birthdays and holidays - but I never once heard from any of them on my birthday or holidays.

Then my oldest cousin - the one closest to my age - got my email address and started corresponding with me and occasionally calling me. She tried again and again to convince me how important it was to be close to the family. And between her and my mother, I began to wonder what was wrong with me that I didn't feel close to them. How could I not feel any real connection to these people who were my blood?

For a while I really thought there was something wrong with me - and I felt enormous guilt that I didn't want to be there and be involved with my mother's family. I hadn't yet realized that they reaped what they had sown - that they had never been there for me, so of course I felt no real desire to associate with them.

I finally realized this a few years later - when my mother became ill. She had wound up in the hospital with an unknown illness that eventually turned out to be lupus. I knew I had to go out to California to be with her - to help her - but I was concerned about the expense. My grandfather called me and told me to go - that my mother needed me and that I should be there - and not to worry about money - he would reimburse me the cost of the trip when I got back. That I was going for the family - so he would take care of it.

I booked a fairly expensive last minute flight and headed west in time to be there when my mother was released from the hospital - so I could care for her and make sure she had what she needed at home. I stayed for almost 2 weeks - which is an ETERNITY with my mother. But I got through it and helped make sure that she had the prescriptions and health items and had established the routines she need. And I left her with a ton of information I'd researched about Lupus so that she would learn to better understand the disease she'd have to live with for the rest of her life.

I got back to NYC totally broke, but thankful that my grandfather was going to reimburse me. But the next time I spoke with him he said, "Well, your father has money - I'm sure he can help you out." All that talk about me going out to California for the family was a load of crap. He had no intention of helping with the expenses.

I accepted it. She is my mother after all and I've always known that, as an only child, I'd have to deal with taking care of her on my own. My grandfather only confirmed what I already knew.

But it was at that moment that I understood that there wasn't anything wrong with me. That my lack of interest in my mother's family was simply an extension of their lack of interest in me.

In the years since then - I've seen them very infrequently. When my oldest daughter was born I took her to my grandparents so they could see her. By then my grandmother had alzheimer's and barely knew me - but my grandfather was happy to see his first great grandchild. And when my grandmother passed I took my daughter to the funeral and the burial. That was one of the longest days of my life - because one of my favorite paternal aunts had passed away as well and I had to speak at her funeral that same evening.

Before I left for my aunts funeral my oldest cousin pulled me aside and chastised me for not being more involved in the family - "We love you. Family is important to us - you have to stay in touch." I nodded and went to go mourn with my real family.

In the 7 years since then I've had almost no contact with them. But this past December my mother called to say that my grandfather was sick and in the hospital. I'd tried calling him in the months after my second daughter was born so I could take her to visit with him - but his memory was going and he never knew who I was when I called - so I let it go. But now my mother was distressed - feeling that I HAD to see him before he passed, or I would never forgive myself. Which meant she would never forgive me and would never let me forget it. So I went to see him in the nursing home he was transferred to after the hospital.

He was frail - the most frail human being I've ever seen in real life. He looked like the pictures I've seen of concentration camp victims. Literally skin and bones - no flesh between them - I could see ever dent and crevice in the outline of his skull. I took Sugar with me. I was immediately worried that it would be too much for her. But somehow she was OK with it. He chatted with us - and even remembered me a little - though it took some work. And he was even kind of charming with Sugar - who managed to be poised and a little charming herself.

I planned to visit with him again. And since the following week was Xmas - I saved my visit for Xmas day. But by then he was back in the hospital. When I got there they had moved his room and I got a bit of a run around trying to find him. While I was searching for him I saw a young woman wandering the halls in a searching way. I immediately recognized her as the oldest of my two younger cousins - the ones who had been taken away.

I knew they had been returned to the family a few years before - after about 10 years away. They had returned to living in the house and my grandfather had cared for them and they, in turn cared for him as he got older and more frail. The older of the sisters apparently continued to be the golden child - and the younger one continued to follow the role that had been set for her as the bad kid. Apparently taking it to extremes in the last year - stealing, breaking and entering, hurting people. She had recently been pushed out of the family and wasn't allowed near my grandfather. But her sister - the good one - was there Christmas night - searching for our grandfather as I was. So we started searching together.

At some point she looked at me and said, "Where have you been?" and later she said, "You know, family is important." And I knew both the question and the statement were indictments of my lack of contact with the family. At first it didn't bother me. But by the time I got home and put Sugar and Spice to bed I realized how much this angered me. How dare she judge me! The family searched for her. They always knew where I was but never bothered to come see me. They took care of her and barely acknowledged me until I was an adult and could come to them on my own. Of course the family was important to her - she was a part of the family. I was not. And though I never missed it or resented it - I really hated the fact that these people had spent my adulthood accusing me of not making the effort - when they had never made the effort for me. I left the hospital that night and knew I wouldn't be back. That it would be the last time I'd see my grandfather alive.

Since then, whenever I've heard from my mother, I've expected her to tell me that my grandfather has passed. He was even more frail that night - holding on by a string and I thought he wouldn't make it much longer. Yet, my mother has called me in recent weeks to tell me of other - unexpected deaths.

The first was Earl, who I wrote about here before. And last night she called and left a message to tell me that her sister's husband had passed suddenly, Friday night of heart failure.

So, once again, I will step, momentarily, into the family - almost more of an outsider than a family member. I spoke to my aunt and my cousin and offered my condolences and to help them in whatever way I could. I will attend the funeral in a few days. And I am grateful that, in an interesting twist of fate, my aunt now lives around the corner from my father and stepmother and so they have become friends as neighbors and so I will have real family with me as I encounter my "not family."

I don't know why I've felt compelled to share this long, drawn out story of my "not family." I guess it's something I've struggled with. Because family - real family - is important to me. Really important. So I am troubled by these people who insist they are family and push at me for not embracing them even though they've never wrapped their own arms around me. The hypocrisy and sheer narcissism of it irritates and astounds me. I guess at least I know how my mother turned out the way she did. And I can be grateful that I have my father's people who really understand what family is about.

7 comments:

Ros said...

These people are not your family, they're just blood relatives. I know you wouldn't do this at a funeral, but some other time - the next time one of them says, "We love you, you should blah blah blah", wouldn't it be great to answer, "If you love me, how come you've never phoned me in your entire life?" or "Only make contact at Christmas with an impersonal card?"

Fat Lady said...

You know it's funny - I don't remember any of them every saying "I love you." It's always more of a "Why don't you come around? Family is important to us and you should come see us." And other than a birthday card about 10 years ago - I've never gotten a card of letter or anything even impersonal from them. The most contact they've initiated is a phone call from one of my uncles when my second daughter was born - and I'm pretty sure my mother pushed him into that.

The Bear Maiden said...

Ros is right... but then I'd add "Do you love me? Why do you need for me to be in contact?"

You should also talk to the Diva one day. Her birth family likes to make claims like that... it's family, she should come around. That they missed her and didn't know where she was. Which is complete BS because my mother has lived in the same apartment in the same building for 30 years. They could have easily found her.

In a way, though, the Diva is a rockstar. It's as if they want a piece of her so that they can be rockstars, too. But at the same time they sense she is different than them (and she is... it's why we took her) and so they push her away. But they always feel the need to claim her, to guilt her into staying in touch.

She finally told them off one day. So I think you should, too.

She does keep in touch with her birth father's family, and one brother from her mother's side. But the rest... she never hears from them anymore, for which she's very glad.

Family can be really, really strange.

Mes Deux Cents said...

Hi FL,

You just pretty much told my story. I don't have any contact with my family.

I have not ever really had too much contact with my mother's family. In fact as amazing as it may seem I don't even know my mother's mothers name. How did that happen?

Anyway both my parents have passed away several years ago and since I didn't have much contact with my family as a kid, including my older sister, I'm kind of in the world all alone.

So knowing what I know about being in the world alone, if you have a chance to have contact with your family you might want to consider doing so.

I have a lot of resentments as it sounds like you do. But resentment tends to do more harm to the one holding the resentment than the ones who are the object of that resentment.

I'm not saying you have to throw yourself at your family but a phone call a few times a year will make you feel better in the long run.

Yolanda said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I am going through my own time of discovering who my family is- and who are just relatives. Relatives offer criticism, guilt, and empty words/promises while speaking of "love" while family quietly shows real love through all situations.

The one positive I can see in this is that at least you know absolutely without a doubt who are your true dependable supporters. The worst is when people lead you to believe they really care but in reality they aren't even capable of caring for themselves let alone anyone else. Your daughters are blessed to have a Mother to guide them and show them what true family is.

Fat Lady said...

Thanks for the comments all. In true form I went to the funeral and sat in the back with Sugar, Spice, The Bull and my parents. I went down to the front row and said hi to the relations. Only one of them came to the back to see the girls. We didn't go back to my aunt's house after because it was too late for the girls. But my parents did and sure enough - people complained that they didn't see the girls.

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Bear Maiden

The Diva is a STAR and sure enough there will be people - relations and others - who will want to be close to her to catch a little of her stardust on themselves. She certainly has to be forceful enough to push those people away when they are draining her - or have nothing good to give in return.

In my case - it's not about me, it's about them and their narcissism. I've never seen an ENTIRE family of people who are each so completely and utterly self-centered. They always blame others and absolve themselves - and they NEED for others to admit their wrong - even when they are the wrongdoers. It's crazy. I have no need to confront them. I am content to just leave them be. They are not my family. I have family - and as crazy as the people I share blood with through my father are - they are mine and I am happy to claim them.

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MDC,

I'm sorry that you lost your both your parents. It's hard for me to imagine what it would be like without my parents - particularly my father, stepmother and the aunts who helped to raise me. As I watch them age I realize one day they will be gone - but I can't accept it.

You're right about resentments. They do hurt the bearer of them much more than those they are directed at. I try to let go of things. Try hard to forgive people because I do understand that forgiveness is for the forgiver - not the forgiven. But I don't think I need to have regular contact with these people to either forgive them or to release any linger resentments.

They are not my family. They are merely relations whom I can have contact with when it's necessary out of polite obligation - but beyond that, I have no need to contact them.
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"Relatives offer criticism, guilt, and empty words/promises while speaking of "love" while family quietly shows real love through all situations."

Those are some true words Yolanda. Thanks for sharing them. I'm sorry you have to deal with relations who don't know how to be family. I always remind myself that it's their problem, not mine. That the way they behave is an indication of their shortcomings, and has nothing to do with me. Often, I feel sorry for them more than anything else.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

I was blessed to be close to both of my families. they showed love equally, all except my birth father