Recently, my brother related how he had to explain some fairly difficult information to my Paternal Grandmother (Grandma E.). This difficult information consisted of why she hasn't heard from me in about 15 years and hasn't heard from my Sister in about a year. My Sister's story I can't shed a whole lot of light on, but I can on my own reasons for not talking to my extended family.
For those of you who don't know, my father died about 20 years ago. I was 12 at the time, my brother would have just turned 8 and my sister would probably have been 3 or 4 at the time. We were all pretty young. Being the oldest, I'd had the most time to get to know our Father and without being presumptuous I think I can say that, of my siblings, I was probably the closest to him. At that point in time, he was my best friend. As you might expect his death was catastrophic to my immediate family. I won't presume to speak for the rest of my family, but I was devastated. My best friend and one of my only male role models is suddenly taken away. The thing that I would have hoped would have happened at that point in time is for my extended family to help fill in the gaps left by my Father's absence. Oh, they tried, some of them more than others, but ultimately we were left to rely on my Mother's side of the family for support.
My mother is proof positive that mothering skills are inborn and not learned. The reason
I say this is that her nurturing skills were not taught by my maternal Grandmother (Grandma W.). Grandma W. is about as warm and comforting as hugging a frozen cactus covered in ants, bees and broken glass. After my Father's death we spent a lot of time at her house while my mother worked. It was pretty clear that my brother, sister and I were lower on her list than her other two grandchildren (Julie and Bud). I don't really begrudge them that, but her treatment hurt anyway. Eventually, I was old enough to stay at home by myself. Being a latch key kid was far preferable to spending time with Grandma W. I do feel sorry that Zakk and Emillie were left to their own devices at her house.
I guess what I'm getting at is that I'd reached an age where I was fairly autonomous but still in need of some guidance. My mom did the best that she could, but she was only one person. I had free run of a widening radius for the next 6 years. I spent a large part of that time with my friend Bob. He was in a remarkably similar situation. Bob was a few months older than I was and his father had died only months before mine had. He was the only friend of mine that showed up for my Father's funeral. Up to that point we'd been friends, but things changed after that. We were more or less inseparable from that point in time until we found girls. Then we just spent a lot of time with one another. Bob will forever be like a brother to me.
Over those 6 years I was hell on wheels. I did things that if I'd been caught would have sent me to juvenile hall and if I'd been a little older to jail. I think eventually both Bob and I developed a sense of what is right and wrong, but that was our own doing and not because we were taught by anyone.
So what's my point? Where the hell was my Father's family this whole time? We'd see them on holidays and sometimes get a card on birthdays, but that was about it. The one uncle that did try the most was my uncle Jack. He'd stop by on occasion to see how we were doing and for the first few years he remembered birthdays. The fact that he did anything was amazing because he probably had more things to deal with and more family problems than all of his brothers and sisters combined. His wife (my aunt) was more or less bedridden from MS.
Over time I began to feel more and more abandoned by that side of my family. The only interaction that I would have was on holidays. For gods sake, I was only 12 years old and have just lost my father. Show some compassion and have some sort of role in our lives.
Over time I began to realize that I really wasn't getting anything from having an extended family, so one by one I quit talking to them. I'm not sure it was even intentional at first. It was just easier to ignore the fact that they existed. I did this to both sides of my family. I think the last time I remember seeing Grandma E. was at my high school graduation. She'd shown up and I was a little surprised. It was like pulling teeth to get her to come to our side of town. The last time I saw Grandma W. was right around the time my Grandfather passed away. I think I was 19 at the time. He had cancer-of-the-just-about-everything but my Grandmother had the guts to say that he'd died of a broken heart over something my Mother had done. Could she be any more cruel? I think I got a call from Grandma E. a few years later but all I remember talking about was how I never called her. I'm sure there was more but that was all that I recall. Oh well.
By that point in time I'd had a chance to see a very different view of what an extended family could be. I'd been spending holidays and family functions with Danielle's family. It was an amazing difference. At first I was freaked out. Her family tree is a giant gnarled mass of divorces, remarriages, siblings, half-siblings as well as first second and third cousins. The first few times we'd go to a family function she would have to spend the first half of the thing explaining who was married to whom and which kids belonged to what parents. Eventually, I gave up trying to remember it all and just concentrated on names. By the end of our marriage, I'd more or less gotten it figured out but it was a mess.
What made it even harder is that for all of their flaws there was no apparent differences between people. It didn't matter if you were a brother, half-brother, brother-in-law, somebody's boyfriend, cousin, uncle, friend or just a plain vagrant off the street, they treated you like family. I'd never been treated like family, not even by my own family. Every time I was at one of her familes' home, I felt welcome. I'd never had that feeling. In visiting any of my own family I always had an awkward unease, as if I really wasn't welcome there.
I used to really dread and enjoy visiting her family. I'd dread it because it was pretty alien to me but I enjoyed it because it was always nice to wallow around in all of those hugs from a grandma and slobbery cousin kisses. I was genuinely jealous of her family. That's not to say that they didn't have their problems, but that never seemed to dampen that sense of family.
By that point in time I had three examples of extended families: My mother's family who where distant, emotionally stilted and counted the cost of every hug; My father's family who seemed to drift about one another with no sense of center; and Danielle's family. My jealousy about my own extended family in comparison to hers made me even more bitter about my own. What had been a general disregard for keeping up ties with my own family became a willful avoidance. Interestingly this seemed mostly mutual. There were a few occasions where small attempts were made, but nothing to speak of.
So why am I writing about this now? Two reasons. First, families are addictive. After my divorce from Danielle I lost the only real extended family I'd ever had. I got a taste of a big family again and I realize that I'm hooked. As if I needed another reason to love her, Jennifer's family is huge. I've really only met them once, but I'm already jonesing for Christmas. The second reason that I'm writing this now is that I've got a Christmas card sitting on my couch. It is from Grandma E. It showed up yesterday and I just put it down. I haven't opened it up yet, and I'm not sure when I will be able to work up the guts. See, I've always felt guilty about not trying harder with her. I really don't care if I talk to Grandma W. again. Grandma E. on the other hand was never mean or cruel, maybe just not as caring and concerned as I wish she would have been.
Among the piles of my personal papers there are probably three unfinished drafts of letters to her. I can never seem to finish them and get them in the mail. It looks like I'm about to start another one. I might wait a day or two before I open the card. I've got a cold now and I'm not sure I've got the mental stamina to go back over the 20 years of history right now.