The holiday season is a great time to realize, once again, everything that is wrong with your family. This used to be a really hard time of year for me. I have a very small family of origin that fled our shared memories of misery and abuse. I haven’t spoken to my brothers in over a decade. My sister, who is considerably younger than I, stays in touch, but we have an uneasy relationship, much of which is tied up in mutual ambivalence about our mother. My normal is like a lot of people’s normal. It’s not.
As I continue to write my novel, Phoenix Rock, the character relationships are complex, alternating between deeply ambivalent and complete apathy. But I have created some loving relationships between siblings – relationships tainted by a secret, but relationships that can heal. It has made me think about my siblings and the past and the complex emotions we have shared. I am revisiting a sadness that I have not felt in a long time. After years of trying to awkwardly, painfully talk to each other, we gave up. There was too much geographical and emotional distance between us. We see each other as the children of thirty years ago, frozen in a time when there was incredible unhappiness.
A friend pointed out to me that I am trying to resolve those issues in writing this novel, but I believe that there is no resolution in real life, only acceptance. Like a Lifetime movie, one of us would need a unique organ transplant before we’d be able to unfreeze and move forward. We’re beyond blame and recriminations. We have lives and families across the country from each other. When what you share is an overarching unhappy story, there is little to motivate you to try and start again. Maybe one of us will need that organ, but like mending the past, it’s a long shot.
Over the years, as I’ve traveled and moved about, I have spent very few holidays alone. Early on I developed the skills to create a family wherever I was at the time. In the Army, I’d organize parties for many of us that weren’t traveling home for the holidays, cramming people into my small German efficiency apartment or serving a holiday meal to 30 people from the closet-sized communal kitchen in the barracks at Ft. Ord. Like my childhood holidays, it usually involved a lot of booze.
When I was single, I’d make a big meal on Valentine’s Day and invite disparate people like me, from work or school or the neighborhood. I’ve had some oddball gatherings. When I was struggling financially and didn’t have a car, I would still make a big Thanksgiving dinner and friends would travel to see me. I learned to appreciate the relationships I had and how to meet my needs for a sense of shared camaraderie – a sense of belonging somewhere in the world.
I have a small family now as well, but it’s a loving one. Even though both my husband and I came from relatively big families, we married late and that determined that we’d only have one child. She’s enough for us, but I often worry about the task we’ve set before her. She was disappointed at Thanksgiving this year. She’s always been the youngest, but the other kids have grown into teenagers who are not so interested in playing with an eight year old. She is an outgoing child who has had to learn how to live in a world peopled by adults. We have a lot of play dates for her, but the holidays are different, highlighting a lack of similarly-aged companions.
My husband and I console ourselves by recognizing that the presence of siblings is no guarantee of friends or playmates. But in the end, when we are gone, they would be the people who would have shared her collective memory of her childhood and family life. I’d like to believe that if she’d had siblings, they would have had happy adult relationships.
There are a lot of ‘only child’ myths that persist, but my daughter has a wide open heart that says she will be loved by people other than her parents. I hope that as she grows up and begins travels of her own that she can make home where she finds it. I hope that we will have helped her develop the skills to seek out those people who would be her family. I hope that she can find her sense of place in the world. I hope…