My grandmother died 27 years ago today, November 4th. It’s pretty hard to believe that so much time has passed since that sad day. Even though I was only nine years old, I remember it clearly. My grandmother dropping me off at school and promising to bring by my forgotten roller skates and a change of clothes later on, for an after-school field trip. But she never showed, and my teacher shoved me along to the field trip without my stuff, until my neighbor came to pick me up at the roller rink. I’ll never forget that feeling, like free-falling into a black hole with no bottom, when I finally learned that my grandmother had died. Having been living with her and my grandfather since I was four, my grandmother was the only mother figure I had left in my life. And then she was gone.
My memory of that day is a bit timely today, as it sits in the script of my current life. Lately I have been reflecting a lot on my family, or the lack thereof, with a great deal of sadness. And strangely enough, not until today, on the anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, did I truly realize that it was also the day my family changed forever.
Doesn’t every family have that one person who holds everyone together? My Grammy was that person in ours, particularly when it came to us kids. But once she left, all the personalities collided, cold wars were forged, and eternal grudges began. As a child I was not the cause of any of those grudges, but I was definitely a pawn. When I was 10 we spent Christmas with my aunt C, who was my father’s sister, and her three perfect daughters. I remember wondering if the reason why my brother and I always felt so inferior to the daughters was because we had brown hair, and they were blonde. I didn’t realize that the feelings were coming from my aunt and her long-standing jealousy-fraught feud with my father. Because when you’re a child you don’t see all those differences, the invisible divisions, between people, that you learn to see when you’re an adult. Perhaps that’s a lesson to take into consideration, but I digress.
Now that I am 36 years old, the age that my father was when he died (still not having made any sort of truce with his sister), I am living 3,000 miles away from anyone I could call family. The only exception to that is one of my Aunt C’s daughters, A. And naturally, A and I do not speak. This was not my choice, it never would be. But it is a fairly accurate example of how all the people in my family work. It makes me really sad that I cannot fix the wounds that my family members have all inflicted on each other, but the reality is that most of the members who haven’t died yet get along just fine overall; they just don’t like me.
When you’re living across the country from your family and nobody bothers to call you on your birthday or Christmas for three years, you hear your grandfather took you out of his will for no palpable reason, and you can’t get anyone to answer a text message in less than a week, you start to change a little. You start to notice that the hole you thought you left when you moved away….well, maybe it was never actually there. You remember how your mother left your life when you were four and then you start to worry that maybe, just maybe, nobody ever liked you in the first place, they just all tolerated your presence until you grew up and left for the west coast, and then it was all #byefelicia.
All of this sounds pretty dramatic. I realize. But this is the stuff I think about when I’m busy getting lost on my long runs around the neighborhood. Last week, I put on my shoes and just stepped out of my door, not having any real clue where I was going. Thirty minutes later I was sprinting uphill at the top of a canyon with tears dribbling down my face. Nobody else was there. It was the embodiment of the perfect loneliness I was feeling at the time.
Truth is, I’ve kind of always been lonely. At least when I was living on the east coast. Everywhere I went, I was different from everyone around me. There was nobody in my family who thought the way I did, or dreamed like me. Everyone was focused on being rich, or at least appearing so, and having a certain kind of job and lifestyle that was very much unlike the one I wanted. Nobody was as creative, as bound to the earth…as wild as me. The whole time I was living there I never realized this was what made me feel so different. I just thought I was doing things wrong, so I became a master at conforming. It worked for a majority of my teen and college years, but eventually it all just fell apart. I was the only person in my family who had a creative career, the only one who got piercings and tattoos, the only one who didn’t listen to country music, carry around Coach bags and collect Ugg boots. It wasn’t just the brown hair (which I had since dyed blonde – wonder why?) – it was me. There was something wrong with me, and everyone else could tell.
When I was young, I was told that blood is thicker than water. In other words, no matter what happens in life, your family is supposed to be there for you. I guess I held on to that idealism for a little too long, and that’s probably why it hurt so much when my cousin A stopped picking up her phone two years ago, right after I told her I was getting a divorce….and then finding out how close she is to my ex instead, and his new girlfriend. The blood in my family is not nearly as thick as it would seem.
It’s pretty easy for any well-meaning adviser to claim that letting go is the thing to do here. And I’m working on that. But letting go of A in a way means letting go of everyone else: the mother who left me when I was four and died before I got to know her; the grandfather who once loved me so but then mysteriously replaced me with A in his will; the aunt C who spun a web of jealousy and deceit into my psyche; the transient brother who won’t speak to me if I can’t lend him money for drugs; the great-aunt who raised me in lieu of parents, and who stopped calling once I told her my marriage failed; the hordes of cousins I was once close to but have moved on without me, and without the slightest blink of an eye. To let go of A is to let go of them all. But it’s not easy. It’s sort of like untying your wrist from the hundred hot-air balloons that are holding you high up in the sky. Cutting them all off at once would mean plunging to your certain death. Instead, you have to untie them one at a time so you’ll arrive on the ground softly, and it’s a much more painstaking job.
The only one I guess I don’t have to let go of is my grandmother. So I’m holding on to her today. I no longer exactly believe in heaven and hell, and deceased loved ones looking down on us from “above” – but her memory lives in my mind, for sure. And while she was the only glue that once held my whole family together, the memory of her heart and mind holds me together now. And it forces me to appreciate the incredible people I’ll have surrounding me this holiday season – not family, not blood per-se, but friends and loved ones who have chosen to be there.
Blood may indeed be thicker than water. But water can move mountains.