Friday, March 8, 2013

The Family Photo Project

"...Has a rat ever done anything to you to create this animosity you feel towards them?... Rats were the cause of the bubonic plague, but that's some time ago. I propose to you, any disease a rat could spread, a squirrel could equally carry. Would you agree?...Yet I assume you don't share the same animosity with squirrels that you do with rats, do you?...But they're both rodents, are they not? And except for the tail, they even rather look alike, don't they?...Ha! However interesting as the thought may be, it makes not one bit of difference to how you feel. If a rat were to walk in here right now, as I'm talking, would you greet it with a saucer of your delicious milk?...I didn't think so. You don't like them. You don't really know why you don't like them; all you know is you find them repulsive."

-Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

It should have come to no surprise to me that my Dr. Doolittle routine would at some point usher in some unwelcome house guests, yet, as I watched from my dining room window as a family of rats happily crawled up and down a pole to access the bird feeder off my deck, I was genuinely surprised.  I think maybe I was more surprised that I live in a house with two cats and five - count 'em - five dogs, yet a family of four not particularly small rats felt so completely comfortable as to scamper around my back deck in broad daylight helping themselves to the food I set out for others (meaning squirrels and birds - it is like an Eat N'Park breakfast buffet for critters out there).  Of course, I actually know the answer to that: this is why the little rat family knows no fear --

Hard to chase varmints from the sofa.

And why do I feel like I need to feed the entire wild population of suburban Pittsburgh anyway?  Well, for the same reason I attracted a herd of some 30 deer that would actually respond by name back in Texas.   And for the same reason I've had up to eight dogs at a time.  And it's the same reason that I have put us through the ardor of raising an active puppy in a 1,308 sq. ft. house in the middle of winter at our age.  I'm the most transparent person on the face of the planet.  There are no secrets here:  I am trying to surround myself with a pseudo family.  And if you wonder why I still feel compelled to gather all these four legged bundles of fur around me - invited or not - even though I now live close to my mother's family, it's because it's pretty deeply ingrained in me at this point.  The dye is cast, but there is little doubt that my present is rooted in my past.

But, one thing I have to realize about my past that might never change now is that it stops with me.  Past my own childhood, my history - the connective tissue that binds me to a family and a legacy - is a locked book.  The pages are written, but I can't get into them to read it.  And that's frustrating on several levels.  About this time last year I shelled out a fairly hefty sum to an agency that specializes in locating adoptee's birth parents.  As I explained to the woman when I initially made the deal, I am not interested in meeting my birth parents even if they are still alive, but I want to know my true history.  I grew up believing one thing about myself, which then translated into what I believed about my children and turns out that is not true.  And that frustrates me on my best days and angers me on my worst.  I pulled the trigger therefore at the time to try and find out Marissa's true medical history.  She still deals with some of the physical after-effects of her own addiction and eating disorder issues, and someday in all likelihood she will be at a point where she wants to have a family.  I'm sure, given our experiences as a family, she'd like to know what kind of genetic bullet she is loading into the gun.  She has a right to know.

But, it's more than that.  One of the things we wrestle with as humans is the knowledge that life is fleeting and we cope with that in part by passing on pieces of ourselves and our past to the younger members of our families and knowing that we live on in some small way, just as we carried the torch for our ancestors before us.  I have a photo of my mother and all her siblings taken in the early 40's in my office.  They were so young, so vibrant, so beautiful.  Now only one of those six people in that photo is still alive.  Yet, each of them lives on in a way.  The legacy of who they were is remembered by their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and will be passed on in that way to future generations.  They therefore carry on in the hearts and minds of their loved ones, as well as in the  DNA strands that they pass along.  There is a comfort that is hard to put into words of knowing where you come from.  Even just the ability to be able to say, "I'm Irish" or "I'm German".  It's why, after generations of living here, we all still do say things like that.  You've all heard me label where I live as an "Irish-Catholic" neighborhood.  Yet, not one of the people who share my zip code were actually born in Ireland (that I know of anyway).  I guarantee you that will not stop a single one of us from celebrating St. Patrick's Day with great gusto.  We are connected to our past.  We like it that way because it makes us feel grounded and gives us an understanding about ourselves.

My mother, a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was extremely proud of her heritage.  So I think she would understand what I'm trying to say here.  Therefore, on some days, I just cannot imagine why she kept me away from mine.  Please don't get me wrong - my parents gave me a good life.  They raised me without a hint ever that I was anything less than truly a member of their family.  Now granted, they were humans and therefore had some failings as parents...I could write volumes on that, trust me.  But, they were genuine in their love, I know that.  Yet, I do have lesser moments where I get really angry that Mother, at least when Kelsey started to get sick, never told me the truth.  She was a nurse after all.  Surely she knew I was repeating family histories that were completely erroneous.  Would it have made a difference?  I don't know.  But could it make a difference to Marissa now?  Possibly, and more than anything else that's why I can't let this go.

Why has all of this been stirred up, you wonder?  Well, I am undertaking a project to convert all of Greg's family slides to .jpeg files.  There are thousands of them.  Greg's father loved taking photos and, for a man with his own social anxiety issues, he had a real eye for human emotion.  There are some real gems.  I've had a lot of fun sharing them with his sister and his cousins.  When I'm done, I'll start in on my parent's slides.  But, I have been struck more than once how fortunate they are that they understand how they are truly connected to one another, and how blessed they are to have one another in their lives.  I hope they realize it, treasure it and don't take it for granted.

Of course, it stands to follow that I have also been struck more than once how I have none of that.  That sounds like self-pity and perhaps it is.  It is a mourning of a sort, that much I will definitely concede.  Yet, it is what is is for now.  So, until I can dig up the keys to unlock the pages to my own past, I'll continue in all likelihood to feed the squirrels and the birds and have way too many pets.  I had promised Greg I would stop putting food out back to try and force the rats to go elsewhere (since I was horrified at the idea of trying to poison or trap them), but I snuck some out there yesterday and was able to watch the most beautiful bird - I have no idea what it was - come visit the feeder.  So, what the heck, the little rat family is just trying to forge out a living after all, just like the rest of us.  I realize that it is a bit like life:  you take the ugly along with the occasional glimpse of real joy and beauty and accept that you can't truly have one without the other.

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