Tag Archives: family

Long Way Back Home

As the story goes, Hansel and Gretel tried to mark the way back home by leaving a trail of bread crumbs. Hikers make notches in trees to mark the trail so they know how to get back to camp. Back in the day, divers would be doomed without their tether to the boat.

A lot of our lives, in one way or another, is spent trying not to get lost and making sure we get back home. One way of doing that is by tracing our way back via landmarks. But when you’re trying to reach back in time moreso than distance, those landmarks take the form of homesteads, gravesites and hometowns.

It wasn’t until I went to Virginia and West Virginia with my brother that these landmarks began to make sense to me in that context. Visiting the cemetery where my great-grandfather, his brothers, and the children that he and my great-grandmother had that didn’t survive infancy are buried — a cemetery located in a tiny valley town in West Virginia where my grandmother and great-uncle were born — somehow helped complete a piece of a puzzle I didn’t know I needed solved. I felt the same way upon seeing the tiny white house where my grandmother and great-uncle were raised, as well as visiting the town in West Virginia where many of my relatives were from — a town I’d heard about my entire life — and seeing where my cousin still lives in that town. Picking through shoeboxes full of photos scavenged from the shambles that is my grandmother’s house in Florida provides another piece,  connecting names and stories to faces that are fleshed out by anecdotes. Slowly, the branches of the family tree begin to tie together and grow leafy.

I now know why I feel the need to visit the house I grew up in each time I’m in Florida, even though I don’t have many fond memories of the place, and despite the fact that all I can do is idle on the street outside. This time around, as my brother and I idled on Second Avenue while a fierce thunderstorm began to swirl around us, a boy from the house next door collected the mail from both houses, then politely inquired as to what we were doing, parked next to the “No Parking” signs my grandmother had the city erect nearly 15 years ago.

“She grew up here,” my brother, in the passenger seat, told the boy as he gestured to me. “We’re just taking a look.” The boy nodded and smiled, oblivious to the complex family tapestry he had just grazed.

As these realizations fell upon me in Virginia, I began seriously regretting not visiting my great-grandmother’s grave in Boynton Beach while I was in Florida. Here I was, visiting the gravesites of people I’ve never met, from whom I am generations removed, but not that of a woman with whom I pretty much grew up. I sacrificed that visit in the name of making good time on the road, speeding north away from the demons and bad memories and toward the inevitable adventures my brother and I would have, watching the number of palm trees dwindle as our latitude increased.

I also began regretting the fact that my grandmother does not have a proper landmark. At the time, in January, I was in survival mode, and it didn’t seem important. Now, I am simply in living mode, and after last week, it feels wrong to be missing one of the points on this map back in time. I understand now why they are important. You can retrace those points of reference, and like stops on an audio tour, they provide relevance and context. All together, they tell a story.

The me that drove out of Florida, scrutinizing the ratio of palm to other roadside flora as we headed north, was the old me. The me that wishes I’d spent just a few hours longer down there is the new me, a me I never thought would come to pass. Sure, we were driving north, but little did I know we were really driving closer to South Florida, and that when we finally got to Virginia and West Virginia, a part of me would never really leave. We were following a road atlas and a GPS, but there was really a different map charting our course.  It was true: where we were going, we didn’t need roads.*

* I got that message as a fun auto-reply from “Doc Brown” on Twitter last week, and in retrospect, it’s mighty appropriate.


Cane Fu

When I saw this blog post about how some senior citizens are learning to defend themselves with “cane fu,” I had to smile. My great-grandmother was years ahead of the curve on that one.

Her bedroom door had a deadbolt on it, but that didn’t stop thieves from breaking into the house — twice, the second time a year to the day after the first time — and busting through that bedroom door, looking for loot. Each time, she rose from bed, grabbed her cane and chased off the intruder, shouting “Get out of my house! Get out of my house!” And amazingly, they did.

Mamo (pronounced “maw-maw”) died in 1999, and these incidents took place relatively late in her life. She was shrunken, frail and in declining health. But she was still strong. It was the same strength she used when she pulled her children miles down the road to Princeton, West Virginia, in a pony cart after she left her husband because no one could give her a lift. And it’s a strength I don’t think I appreciated during her lifetime.

I just got back from a whirlwind roadtrip with my brother through the South, culminating with a visit to Virginia and West Virginia to see family and visit family landmarks. I am sure I will explore some of this in greater detail in the months to come, but I think one of the most important realizations I came away with from this experience is that the family framework is important. It’s bigger than just one person; it’s bigger than your own idea of what it is. It’s everything, and everyone. But it needs to be maintained. And you do that by accepting your place in it and maintaining your connections to everyone else — past and present — within it. That doesn’t mean it’s positive all the time, but staying present within it is critical. What does this have to do with Mamo’s “cane fu” strength? Since I am part of the framework, it’s in me, as well.

Another interesting observation I took away from my trip was the idea of being treated like family — how you can come out of nowhere but, if you’re a part of that framework, you can be treated like family. To me, that means unconditional acceptance. I understand that not all families are like this, and that there are often strains, divisions, rivalries and bitterness, and that sometimes even acceptance can come questions and doubt. But I venture that only within the family framework is it possible to experience that level of unconditional acceptance and welcoming. I say this because this week, I saw it happen.

If you had told me this 10 years ago, I would have vehemently disagreed with you. Friends meant everything; the idea of family had not lived up to the hype, and I was over it.

But little did I know, I was just beginning.

All We Need is an Ewok

I don’t follow many Twitter power users, but one that I do follow is Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. Yesterday evening, he tweeted:

Feeling pensive today and pondering life’s big questions. For example, what does Luke Skywalker do on father’s day?

I couldn’t help but laugh. I was going to make some acknowledgment of Father’s Day in this space, likely about how it’s still weird to have the day mean something after years of awkwardness and unanswered (heck, unasked) questions. But Hsieh’s short, offhand musing thrusted me in a different direction, toward a galaxy far, far away…

To date, the best cinematic analogy of my life has been (sigh) “What a Girl Wants.”


How much cooler would it be as the “Star Wars” trilogy? (Let’s pretend the prequels didn’t happen.) You’ve got a princess and a farmboy, both destined to be on the front lines of the battle to preserve galactic freedom.  They were separated at birth and thrown onto remarkably different trajectories, only to be reunited by chance thanks to a couple of wacky droids. Leia is equipped with incredible poise and toughness, entrusted by the entire rebel force with the secrets that, if revealed, could doom their cause. Luke has the blood of the jedi flowing through his veins, and is imbued with a power he can barely understand but slowly begins to master.

OK, maybe my brother and I don’t completely match up to this plotline. But, well, we were separated at birth, and we did get thrown onto markedly different trajectories. The other details vary juuuuuuust a little bit.

The other big problem with this comparison is their father, Darth Vader. Because as we know, in the movies, Darth Vader has been consumed by his power and turned to the dark side. In a small part of his heart, though, he remembers who he was, and he loves his children.

I think that I might tentatively liken my childhood and adolescent understanding of my father, who I didn’t yet know, to something like Darth Vader — a big, dark presence to whom I accorded all sorts of nefarious intentions, but who in his precious few moments of humility manages to remember his past.

As the past few years of actually knowing him have proven, my father is nothing like Darth Vader. Thinking about it, he’s sort of a mix of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo. He’s got Han’s confidence and charm, but Obi-Wan’s insight and goodness. I’m not sure he’s the best starship pilot in the universe, but he can handle a Toyota Four-Runner on the narrow, winding roads of Oxfordshire pretty well. That’s got to count for something.

So maybe “Star Wars” isn’t the perfect cinematic analogy for my life. But “What a Girl Wants” isn’t, either. This is my story, unique in all of its perfect and imperfect ways. There’s no ideal analogue out there. That, of course, means there’s no template for understanding all the things I am still trying to figure out — like Father’s Day. But I’m getting there.

I’d like to think, though, that my brother and I could save a galaxy if called upon to do so. That there is an untapped wellspring of capacity buried deep within us, just waiting for the right moment to make itself known.

Her Last Will and Testament

The last thing I would ever want to do is carry out my grandmother’s wishes. This is because, most of the time, they involved an act that was at best selfish, oftentimes deceitful, or at worst just plain hateful. But at one point this past Sunday evening, I stopped in the middle of the task at hand and realized that was more or less what I was doing.

Over the years, my grandmother was a sucker for anything that was collectible. Rather, anything that was “collectible.” She had bizarre notions of what would be “worth something someday.” I was reminded of this when the estate sale folks pulled out the Batman lunchboxes she had been holding onto since I was still in elementary or middle school. I had seen those lunchboxes sitting on the closet shelf for years, maturing to their highest value. Sadly, since they were incorporated into a box lot at the auction, it’s impossible to know how what the value ended up being. One time at my mom’s recently, she pulled out a bag of utter crap that my grandmother had her procure, including magazines about JFK Jr.’s plane crash and horrible comedy videos. My face wrinkled in disgust, and I declined to have anything to do with the bag or its contents.

My grandmother was a sucker for any way to sneak a buck. Whether it was using the Tide coupon when buying Cheer or calling to complain about a perfectly valid charge, she was cheaper than anyone I knew, and sneakier than anyone else about it, too. Unfortunately, she also saw credit cards as a way to spend free money. The bills left behind after her death are testament to that.

DSCN5739When Rick and I went to the Florida in January, we retrieved some of the magazines she had been saving over the years, as well as some 45s that at one point had belonged to my great-uncle. This past Sunday evening, I spent about an hour taking pictures of the covers and listing the magazines on eBay. There are a few Life magazines, on topics ranging from JFK’s funeral to the death of Princess Grace. There was one interesting collectible magazine called “Is This Seat Taken?” It describes itself as a “photo-cartoon book,” applying humorous voice bubbles to scenes from famous films like “Ben-Hur” and “Spartacus.” An example: Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra saying, “But I haven’t got more cleavage.”

As I was listing those magazines, I realized I was doing exactly what my grandmother, if she had ever had the occasion to become familiar with a computer, would have done with them: try to make a buck. At first, I was sort of appalled to realize that I was fulfilling the goal she’d had in mind decades ago when she set the magazines aside. But as I thought about it more, I came to terms with my actions.

It’s funny how genetics parse out, what gets handed down to you and what gets left behind. I can be cheap, sure, but I’m not a cheat. I don’t collect items that will be “worth something someday,” but when I see a deal I can take advantage of, like my Brendan Benson scam of old, I’ll do it. So yeah, maybe I’m not hoarding “collectibles” on the shelf of my closet or passing off fake coupons, but I do love a good deal, almost as much as I love a good sale. If you do it honestly, there’s nothing wrong with taking something, whether it’s a Batman lunchbox or a Life magazine, and trying to make something more of it, to see what value time or scarcity will bring. It’s a game we all play, to one degree or another.

And I play the game everytime I check the status of my auctions — a couple of watchers, but no bids yet. Truth be told, I’m not trying to make any great profit. More than anything, at this point, I just want them out of my house. It’s hard to resist getting sucked into the game, sure, but at least I’m playing by the rules. At least I have that going for me.

Family Ties

At the risk of turning this into a Facebook blog, I need to share a realization I just had.

I was reading a Facebook wall post from my half-sister in response to my query about a drink they serve in the bars at the University of Manchester, where she attends school. My husband and I recently hosted a friend of his for a few days who also goes to Manchester but is staying in the U.S. for the summer, and we were talking about the official drink of Manchester, a vile/amazing (depending who you ask) concoction called the Green Monster that involves blue curacao, cider, schnapps and probably anything other liquor you have handy. She described them as “fairly vile, but in a good way.”

As I finished reading her comment, something struck me. Through Facebook, I have been able to stay in touch with my siblings and cousins in England that I rarely get to see (and, in the case of the cousins, just met for the first time this past spring). My father is on Facebook, but only nominally since he doesn’t have time to keep up with it. My brother, of course, is on Facebook, and so is my sister-in-law.

Over the past week, independent of one another, the last two pieces of the puzzle came together. My husband, compelled by some high school buddies of his he got together with last week, finally signed up for Facebook. “It’s how we all stay in touch with each other,” his friends said. Then, on Sunday, I brought my mom my old laptop. She recently got Verizon FIOS — upgrading from dial-up — but her computer’s Windows 98 wouldn’t work with the hip new connection. My old Thinkpad, however, does the trick. With a proper internet connection, she was finally able to get on Facebook in a meaningful fashion without unnecessary frustration.

And, well, that’s everyone. I know it might sound hokey, but it’s comforting for me to finally see everyone in one place, for the first and only time ever, even if that “place” is just a series of tubes where they’re not even all interacting with each other anyway. However virtual the gathering place is, for me, it’s a place all the same.

I mean, I have to take what I can get. There will never be a family reunion. There will never be awkward moments between mom’s side of the family and dad’s side of the family. No weird rivalries or jealousies, embarrassing moments or whispered observations. No “Meet the Fockers.” No competing for my affection, jockeying for my favor.

These people are quite different from one another, separated by geography, culture, upbringing and a host of other contexts. But the one thing they all have in common, strange as it is to believe sometimes, is me.