Friday, March 25, 2011

The Ties That Bind

I called my aunt in Wisconsin the other day.  She is my Dad's sister.  We have intersecting sorrows, in that her daughter died just a few days before Mother did, so I wanted to check in with her.  My aunt will be 94 soon, and in her long life she has suffered daunting loss (she lost an older brother as a young adult, her son was killed in Vietnam, my grandfather was at her home when he fell down the stairs - not her fault, he fell down our stairs too, he seemed to have a thing with stairs - and went into the hospital never to re-emerge, she's buried her husband and now a daughter).  She's struggled with handicaps (she was legally blind at one point, and had corrective surgery).  And she's done it all with a joie de vivre that is amazing to me.  And that's just the Reader's Digest version.  Life has handed her other struggles as well.  She has weathered them all and remained in place to do it.  She still lives at home, although one of my cousins lives with her.  I always adored their house, but to imagine a woman her age navigating it, it amazes me more.

Speaking of their house, most of the living took place in their basement - not all that surprising, I imagine the same will be said of us here in our little house.  But, I really loved their basement, and always looked forward to visiting there.  My aunt and uncle had (have, I guess - I assume it's still there) a wet bar down there, a television, a bathroom, comfy couches, and the basement spilled out into the garage where the real parties were held, and where my uncle held court.  Life happened in the basement.  The upstairs my aunt always maintained as a showcase, her German discipline showing in how copiously clean it always was, the antithesis of my mom and her constant clutter, but it seemed cold and uninviting.  Even the color schemes were that way:  upstairs was whites and pastel blues, the basement warm yellows, browns and orange.  No one spent any real time upstairs that I am aware of except to sleep and eat.  The basement was the place to be.  There was always something about their house that smacked of fun.  My uncle was the reason for most of that I think; it wasn't actually the basement by itself, it was his presence and what he created inside of it.  He was always good natured and kind to me. A Wisconsin farm boy who delivered milk for a living before going to work for an environmental engineering firm that, purely coincidentally, I would work for as well for a while (different states obviously), he had a sense of fun that maybe only hard working blue collar men can truly have.    Whenever I talk to her now, I picture her in her basement.

However, I digress.  The reason her call has been on my mind was that this was how I found out that my dad's other sister had died.  I assumed probably that she had (I believe she was older than my father) but I really didn't know for sure.  I still don't know how or when; I didn't want to ask because the way the topic flowed from my aunt, it was pretty clear she expected that I knew already.  I guessed that she had told my mom at the time, and Mother, who despised "Gladdie" as she was known, never would have bothered to tell me.  But, I didn't want to say this to my aunt.  I'm not sure why, other than she was the sister in the middle of a horrible family feud, and I didn't want her thinking about what is past and unhappy.  I suppose I could try and find out by looking for Gladdie's obituary online, but I don't even know her married surname.  I'm sure I did at one point.  I remember being in her house after my grandfather's funeral, but within a few weeks of that occasion, my dad and his sister were in a bitter feud over the will and my grandfather's railroad watch and ring.  It had been left to Dad as the surviving son, but Gladys wanted it - or so I was told - and all hell broke loose, never to be boxed away.  I remember thinking at the time that this was a pretty stupid thing to be fighting over.  The watch (which I may have mentioned before) sits in a bell jar in my china cabinet.  It's the gold watch Grandfather got when he retired from the railroad, so it was sentimental to him and, by now, quite old.  However, it's just a watch that doesn't work, and I couldn't believe as a girl of 11 that families would split over something like that.  I failed to see the deeper meaning of the feud:  it was really over who was loved more by two parents who were not demonstrative loving people and the sense of insecurity that left these two siblings with, and their fight for the right to be the patriarch of the family.  The watch was really a symbol of position within the family:  like passing the torch, so to speak.  Sort of ironic that I have it after all of that (if it's genuine - Mother had a conspiracy theory about that), and I'm not actually really related.

After a torrential few months the watch remained on our mantle, my father and his sister went separate ways, never to speak again, and rarely to be spoken of again (at least on my father's part).  I heard stories occasionally about Gladys and her husband, but mainly from my mother.  Mother always told me the husband, whom I recall only vaguely but seem to remember him as a jovial man, was Mafia.  I discounted the story for years, although she said it consistently.  Mother had a way of fabricating things about people she really did not like based on the thinnest of rumors she may have heard once, and, even before the feud, she really did not like this man.  Finally, not so many years ago, someone else in the family verified the story.  He really was I guess.  They lived modestly, so I'm sure he was a street solider wise guy type or whatever they're called, but not much more.  Once I realized that was the truth, I was always fascinated and wanted to know more.  But, I don't think Mother knew more or she surely would have spewed it.  After all, isn't that how people like that survive, by not talking shop?  I thought when Dad died I might try and reach out to that branch of the family, but when no one bothered to call my mom to express their condolences, I decided against it.  If they weren't willing to bury the hatchet as we buried my father, then I had no particular use for them either.  Yet, it was an odd feeling to realize that Aunt Gladys had died, and that I did not know.  Even if I wanted to now, I would not be able to reach out to her children.  And even if I could somehow, would they know who I was?  By my name, I guess, they would see how we were tied, but they neither need nor want anything from me or I would have heard from them long ago.  I feel I have more connection with the hockey players I watch on TV every night than I do with the people who share my father's family tree (Go, Pens, Go!).

This got me thinking:  what makes a family?  And, what ties them together?  Does anything?  If blood ties can be severed over a broken old watch no matter what it symbolizes, what possible hope did I ever have to remain joined with Greg's family, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that things turned so bitter between me and his oldest sister.  And what hope do I ever have of holding all of us together as a family here in this strange land where Greg will be so far from all the things he loves?  Will he hate being away from what he knows more than he loves us?  Maybe it's just my family, and we're an anomaly, but then I think back to Yevgraf in Dr. Zhivago, about to meet his half brother Yuri:  "Perhaps it was the tie of blood between us, but I doubt it. We were only half tied anyway, and brothers will betray a brother. Indeed, as a policeman, I would say, get hold of a man's brother and you're halfway home."

I'm not particularly upset over any of these musings.  That's just what they are.  Musings over how tenuous life's relationships are.  I have no answers currently.  Questions I got.  Like, how can we carry on without our support systems?  We rely on our friends and our family to sustain us in times of trouble.  And often they do.  But, when they don't - or we're not there for them - how does everyone pick up the pieces?  The easy answer is:  it's really inner-strength that gets us through each and every day.  And I think that's true.  But, I don't think that's the whole answer.  I think we do need others and have to be able to trust in them.  Yet, how can I believe and rely on that with all I've seen of family relationships in my life?  Still thinking about all of that.

For now, I would say to my daughter that my ties to you are stronger than the steel this town was built on.  So you, at least, can trust in that.
Dr. Zhivago, MGM Studios, 1965

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