Friday, January 2, 2015

Family Tribe

Yesterday, on the first day of a new year, my dad looked at his large but still crowded kitchen and remarked with a touch of pride that they need might need a bigger house. It took a very long time for my parents to clear their house of full time residents, but that does not mean that their house is almost ever empty.

We stood around the kitchen cooking black eyed peas and pulling out leftovers from the night before, four sisters, making drinks and talking about plans. Kids wandered through on the backs of boyfriends, a chocolate lab galloped across the floor chased by my mom's ankle biter. It was a warm, loud scene, reminiscent of so many scenes before it.

Sometimes my life feels provincial. I'm a mother, living in her hometown, teaching high school. These simple facts seem like they should belong to someone else. I have always assumed that I was special, and that my life would be something altogether extraordinary. I am, after all, the product of my generation, and we are supposed to be entitled and believe ourselves to be above the mundane. But in so many ways, my life is totally and completely mundane.

I started washing dishes as people continued to eat. Laughter came from the other room. From a distance, I heard a sister complain about my dad's Pandora station just as I was singing along with Whiskeytown, lamenting their breakup so many years ago.

As I scrubbed pots and pans, I thought about the story of Mary and Martha. As Jesus visited, Mary sat at his feet while Martha worked and prepared the meal. I think about how I sometimes feel like Martha, and I wonder how this is possible. I self identify as a rather lazy person, but I am also the one to make most of the family dinners. I am usually the first one up to start cleaning dishes. Maybe I should sit longer, I think. Maybe I'm not lazy enough.

I frequently find myself in conversations with people whose lives more closely resemble the life I once imagined for myself, and they often comment of the demise of the inter-generational family in America. We talk about other cultures, which they are usually more intimately acquainted with than I am because they spent their twenties traveling, while I spent my twenties among an inter-generational American family.  We nod our heads in agreement. Large, extended families are important. The benefits to the children, the parents and the grandparents are immeasurable. I comment that I think it has been hugely beneficial to my marriage to have so many people to rely on rather than to look to a single person to fill all my needs, a single person to help me raise our children to be the kind of people we want them to be. A few nights ago, while caught up in one such conversation, a beautiful art professor remarked that our marriage was most likely a refuge from the chaos of the family and the chaos of the family was likely a refuge from our marriage. I nodded; the thought was new to me and profound.

It seems as though many people recognize that there might be something sort of lonely about each little family living in their individual little box. It seems like lots of people realize that family might be the best form of community, but sometimes they say so with the slightest hint of condensation. It's a great idea for me, but they have important things to do that have led them away from their own hometowns, have led them away from their own families. They have sought communities of like minded individuals, and sometimes I think that it most be wonderful to live among like minded individuals.

How do I explain to these professors, writers, artists, travelers that I am more than the simple mundane, happy life I lead?
Why do I think that I need to?
Why do I want to separate myself from the people they went to high school with, the people who stayed? The ones who had a bunch of children?
Because those people are might be more than their simple mundane happy lives too.

Tomorrow I will go back to my parents house. I'll help my mom prepare prime rib for my dad's birthday. My sisters and their boyfriends/ husbands will come over too. They will likely stay sitting at the dish laden dining room table longer than I will. I will find my way into the kitchen to over hear conversations from a distance while my dad's Pandora station fills in the few silent spaces.


  1. I think about this ALL the time. My perspective is different than yours because my path was different. I don't live near my own family anymore. I left a lot of my village behind, to seek my fortune. I settled a thousand miles away. Luckily I have my husband's family nearby, which has meant a lot. I taught for 13 years and was great at it, although it finally wore me down and I am well suited to my decision to stay home this year. But "my fortune" is SO mundane on paper. The flip side is that I perpetually find the new friends that I meet in our community to be more complex and interesting than I could have imagined (or given them credit for). It's exciting when that happens, but you can't really make it sound exciting in that little note you share with your college alumni journal or wherever it is that we compare notes with everyone else. Part of my loose goal-setting this year is to embrace the nuance and complexity of where we live and the community we live in (who we have a lot in common with some of the time, but who I often feel quite different from, too) rather than letting in those feelings of wanting to be and do something more exciting-seeming.

    1. I think that your goal, loose as it may be, is something really wonderful to aim for. Sometimes I think I see division and difference where there could/ should be common ground. And also, if I could just figure out how to stop comparing notes I would be so much better off. I'm curious to hear about your experience teaching. I am very ready for a break from it, though I suspect that there will be parts of me that miss it as soon as autumn rolls around.

    2. I miss my students and colleagues A LOT. I got weepy when I saw all the First Day photos rolling in on facebook this fall. But! I was back on campus some because I had to write college recs which meant making copies on letterhead and signing things. It was really fun to catch up with everyone. I also see them still - we have dinners and stop by each others houses and stuff. I don't miss the grading one bit. I also don't miss the high-pressure, high-stress, college prep environment. I finished out my last year teaching an AP course and I will (probably) never teach AP again, it really drove home how done I was. However, I became a better person for all of my teaching, and I can't stop seeing the world like I learned to see it as a teacher.

  2. Heartbreakingly beautiful, perfect, a meditation of life, longing, and in the end: satisfaction. I hesitate to admit that I might have reverse condescension: I can not imagine NOT living near family, I cannot fathom how one's soul could support such a life. I believe in being happy, and I think that family and love are the foundation of life's greatest happiness. Your busy evenings with your sisters and parents and children and loved ones sound unabashedly important to me, world-fulfilling, world-affirming. I think you are special indeed, and your voice is loud and clear and moving. Thank you for these words.

    1. Even as I wrote this, I thought about you and your family. I love that your sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews and parents weave in and out of your story. Family does seem so linked to soul-- those relationships make almost all others so pale in comparison. I need these people even if sometimes they drive me a wee bit crazy.