Another laundry-day dispatch, as I sit tucking my legs out of the way of a tiny woman dressed like a teenager (purple velour pants, pink plaid hooded jacket) whose voice reveals her to be fifty or so. My head is fuzzy from a weekend of sitting – in the cars between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids and the nameless woods north of White Cloud where my grandparents live, at tables and on sofas, at the cramped bedside of my grandfather in the hospital where he has been since damaging his 82-year-old hip. Hours of waiting. Sleepy though I have done so little to tire me, enervated by the cloying air of such close quarters. I'll be glad to ride through the wet chill of the evening to Heather's tonight.
My dad and stepmother offered to drive me back to the city to spend more time with me; we spent almost the entire time in silence. There is just nothing to say. I am snappish at the questions that emerge cringing from the quiet spells, which start from such incorrect assumptions that I grow exhausted at the whole world of information I must attempt to convey in order to provide an accurate answer. (Such as: “Do they have Panera in Chicago?” and “Are you still playing with your band? At least you can make some money that way.” Yes, and yes, but no, and this is all quite beside the point.) They are suspicious and naïve, in terror of and incurious about the big, strange city where, to their bafflement, I insist on living. “There are so many buildings,” my father says with disapproval over and over as we go up Lakeshore Drive. “Starbucks,” my stepmother reads out, and then, “The Uptown Lounge.” And it makes me so mean, so mean.
I got a birthday card from my father this past year and it occurred to me for the first time – in at least a decade, if not in my entire life – that he must actually love me. I saw him standing before the rows of Hallmark cards (“Birthday – Daughter”) and selecting this particular card after reading several others, because he thought it was the nicest, and this vision seemed produced not by imagination but by sudden knowledge. The thought made me terribly sad.
I'm very bad at all that sort of thing, filling out the social forms dictated by the flat fact that one has fallen into some relation to some other person. It is not this way for everyone – I know that this is true but it is not a state I can feel my way into very well. Some people are able, with conviction and without further explanation or qualification, to say that “family is important” to them – not that they like, or love, their relatives (as I do truly like and love many of mine) but that their being family is enough to make them matter, not just socially but personally, spiritually.
Perhaps it's a feeling of kinship, a happy recognition of oneself in one's family. But the traits I observe in both my family and myself are not the good ones; they mostly make me despise the both of us a little. So I hear in my voice my mother's nice-lady drawl (without having her commitment to being an actual nice lady); I see in my grandfather's unshakeable routines my own curmudgeonly rigidity; and in my father's greenish eyes, looking away, I see my unwillingness to risk confronting any truths between us. (The greatest unreasonable hatreds are produced, I think, by just such unwilling acts of identification. I have dropped friends because they made the faux pas I would make, told the bad jokes I had to force back from between my teeth. I felt complicit in their every infelicity because I had felt so deeply the impulse to commit it.)
And the qualities I don't mind observing in myself rarely receive their fullest expression in family situations. I am glad to have inherited my grandmother's entirely non-ideological atheism – a sort of natural irreligion -- for instance, and my grandfather's unfussy competence in handling practical affairs. But these are not the basis of a normal conversation. Most of the time, we speak of what we know and have experienced, not what we are – and appropriately so. My new and awful coworker is constantly making such asides as “Well, I'm a very social person” or “But then, I am extremely perceptive.” One doesn't do that. But the shared knowledge base between me and my relatives is tiny; it will support hardly a dozen sentences or so before collapsing into silence.
This makes it tough to buy presents for each other. We ask others for suggestions and after much struggle come up with things like gloves and socks and lotion. It seems that I am nearly alone in really liking to buy gifts for people, so my inability to think of something perfect and unexpected bothers me more than it does my relatives. I like the bright paper and the surprise; it matters to me that I try.
Sometimes I do okay. “Hey, you're good at this,” my grandma said after my gifts had been opened this year, and it was one of the best compliments I've received in months. But I am not getting permanently better at knowing these people. I will wring my hands over all of this again next year, not being able to fill the deficit of feeling in myself that keeps me from making any lasting improvement. I'll return and stand again coldly to one side -- a snowgirl with a heavy heart. But cheered by the surrounding colored lights.
Title credit: Talking Heads -- via the excellent mix Heather made me for Christmas.