08 February 2008

Family matters

Just after a call from a friend flying to Austin for South-by-Southwest and urging me to join her, I got another call: my stepdad's stepdad died. This may sound remote, but my stepdad is so dear to me and his family has embraced mine despite the fact that my stepfather and my mother divorced many years ago.

So it's eastward for me, but for a funeral, not a festival. It's not only to honor the person who died, or I probably wouldn't go even though he showed nothing but kindness to me. I will attend to stand up with his surviving spouse, who is still alive and relatively well, and who was married to the skeezy guy for fifty years. While I may not have trusted him (which turned out to be justified, from reports from other family members this past summer), I do love my newest grandmother, someone I am slowly getting to know better over the years (probably more slowly than she would like). So I'm going, but I'm not going to drag any smelly cats out of any sacks myself. Maybe someone else will do it for me -- I can't really imagine the event passing without at least a few people telling blunt truths about the crueler sides of his nature. (Just one teensy instance: At nearly 90, I saw him ogle the young, pretty women on the beach near his home, all the while vocalizing every iota of his strident disgust with the ones who didn't fit his standards -- pretty, tan, thin, and smooth -- as if not conforming to his ideals meant they should just stay inside or sun themselves out of public view.)

I want to be there for my grandmother, in part because of how she came out for my wedding. This gave me joy, since none of my other grandparents attended. (Nor did any of my husband's. How weird, in retrospect.) She was so fun, so energetic, so boisterous. I remember how game she was on our trip to the Santa Cruz flea market, in her East Coast married-lady outfit of pastel culottes and coordinating flowered sweater, her gold jewelry and comfy, spotless flats, and all my friends were impressed with her energy, too. In her willingness to get along and go along and help out and organize (which I most certainly needed - especially during times of stress), she also alluded to her relief at getting away on her own for a few days, and some of her regrets over her choice of life partner. But just after that she always slammed that door herself, saying that her wedding vows were sacred, taking the "for better or worse" part to its utmost extreme.

My father (the bio one) used to say things like, "We can work this out within the family." I know now this was code for "We don't need to bring in anyone from outside because they'll see how fucked up I really am." I didn't believe then any more than I do now that it was just intellectual arrogance that drove that statement, although there was enough of that flying around. It is, rather, a classic abuser's tactic. Later, when I got some perspective, and again when I heard my grandmother speak of her second marriage, it was hard not to feel that marriage contract was made to enslave people (and the radical lesbian editor I worked closely with on the college paper was on my case about that from her own angles -- she could hardly stand that I was about to enter into a state-governed contract or be a "June bride"). Hearing of my grandmother's regrets about having been lured by jewelry and seeing her stubborn perseverance despite all the drawbacks made me think about marriage.

And it saddened me in the same way my own reaction to my sister's death for so many years saddens me now. For years, I felt like I should have known how to help her, even though I was so little, nor was I there when she fell. My grandmother, too, acts like she should have known better. It was caveat emptor in her eyes, though, and even if she got the lemon she was determined not to renege on her end of the bargain. (I recognize too that eternally fruitless pursuit of blamelessness on the part of the abused from my own experience.)

By the time I was marrying, however, I had already had the experience of seeing my mother and stepdad love each other for who they were. I had seen them treasure what the other brought to the marriage, including each other's friends, interests, and independence. When my sweetie and I wrote our wedding vows, the idea that we would embrace each other and each other's worlds was at the core of it all. What a contrast this was to how I grew up, with one person at the "head" of the family dictating how much and what contact we had with the rest of the world. (Now I see why I used to get tense and pick fights with my sweetie before parties -- at parties, the family was expected to play a certain role that didn't necessarily match up with the fading bruises on my mother's body or the way my sister would hide with me when my dad turned his vitriolic rage loose on his intimates.)

So I hope that my grandmother enjoys her new freedom, and although she has an iron will when it comes to disregarding bad stuff from the past, putting a good face on everything, and moving forward, always forward, I hope she also allows herself some grief on her own account, for the losses of the lives she could have led otherwise.

While I was making my arrangements to fly to the funeral and thinking about all of this, a note from my long-lost half brother arrives (I haven't seen him in fifteen years), and a new baby is born, another great-grandchild for my grandmother to love. Life just keeps on flowing onward, doesn't it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember your step grandma slipping a string of pearls around your neck on your wedding day. It hit me with the strength of a punch to the gut how little I knew of ceremony (was yours the first wedding I'd attended? Probably not, but close.).