Most holidays I call home. When I call this day, my mom answers. She seems pleasantly surprised. My siblings are there and their kids and their kid’s kids. It is a full house and per the holiday tradition the phone gets passed around. I say hello and happy mother’s day and the phone goes to brother, to sister. My dad comes and goes then a nephew and another and a niece and we talk about the new job, the weather, and school, whatever. “I should talk to mom” I say, and the phone passes back to my mother. “You’re still on the line?” She asks. We talk for a minute and she says she doesn’t want to waste my money talking, it costs so much. She passes the phone again before I can protest
We were never the chatty kind. I live several states away and try to make it home once a year. My mom, my family, rarely call and when they do it is usually my father chiding me for not calling, for missing some holiday – mother’s day or father’s day, Easter. “Must be a lot of parties out there” he says “since you don’t seem to have time to call your parents?”
I always hated the question “Is your family close? Are you tight knit?” I always wondered what that meant. If one has to wonder does that mean we are not? When I see other families, other mothers and daughters, siblings, I can’t help but compare. There is a friend who talks with her mom three times a day, and another that might spend a Friday night out with her mom, drinking and dancing.
My siblings and I joke amongst ourselves about our possible dysfunction, our oddness. “Embrace your weirdness” we tell the offspring. But what do we mean really? Do we hope to be dysfunctional or weird? Do we want to make ourselves seem a bit more interesting, a bit out of the ordinary? I don’t know – no one will ever really talk about it except to make jokes. When the subject comes up I mostly try to deny any problems. I am the Pollyanna fluffer upper wanna be. There are drinking and drug experiments among the siblings, cigarettes and bad boyfriends, reckless driving. We accuse my parents of shortcomings, of flaws that have brought us to dysfunction and weirdness, this oddness that we have trouble defining. We gripe that our mistakes or bad choices are the fault of their parenting.
Thing is – I like my family. When I visit we have a bang up time. We’re shy, awkward people. We say I love you by lingering long at the door when it’s time to leave. Suddenly we start to chat in earnest – try to say everything we stowed inside all the day we spent together, whatever day it is, whatever holiday. We might stand there all night saying goodbye if someone didn’t push us out the door.
I don’t know how to define what we are. We don’t talk every day. We don’t talk every week. We don’t write letters or post sentimental things about how much we mean to each other. We hardly hug. Oh maybe there was a time or two like when I announced my pregnancy or came home for my brothers funeral. Then my mother opened the door and hugged us all, me, my husband and son, said she was happy we were home. She held me for a moment in a tight embrace, so very unlike my mother, so tight I could feel the smallness of her as if she were shrinking away from me. All this non hugging deeply disturbs the in-laws. They chide us and wave their hands about. “Hug!” they implore. “This is when people are supposed to hug.” But we stand ever more awkward and watch our shoes.
I have an image of my mother at my wedding or the day after, one I like to think back on or conjure up from time to time. She is sitting in the October sunlight drinking beer on our patio. My mom does not drink beer or sit on patios or relax in sunshine. But there she is. She slurps foam off the top of the beer mug, a ring of pale brown on her upper lip. “I’ve earned this” she practically snarls at me, then closes her eyes, leans back and soaks up the October sun. “I’ve earned this” she murmurs to no one in particular.
What I think she means is that at 40, finally, I am getting married. And to a man she likes, my family likes, a good, solid, upstanding, and kind man. They meet my husband to be two days before the wedding. They don’t know what to expect given my past history. But they come to the event full of hope and good will. They came the last time I was to be married, even though the wedding was cancelled. My mom and dad and sister drive all the way from the Midwest to the pacific coast to pick me up and take me somewhere. We go to the ocean, to camp and walk, we ride ferry boats and visit islands. I need love badly, though I don’t say so. I don’t let on how grateful I am for their visit.
My family has good reason to be skeptical of this whole wedding thing of mine. There was the above mentioned cancelled wedding, but before that there was a whole arsenal of dopey boyfriends. There was fist fight pool hall loving Dell, the one with a head full of wild red hair. He’s the one I meet at the state fair and decide to hitchhike with to Yellowstone. I call from a phonebooth somewhere off the interstate near the Wyoming border.
“Mom” I gush into the phone” “Mom I’m going to Yellowstone – we’re hitchhiking!” as if she’ll be all thrilled, as if she’ll be excited about this with me. “His name is Dell, we met at the state fair.” I say. It is a few days after my 18th birthday, the one she made a cake for, the one the family gathers for, the party I never show for.
Then there was Rudy, who loved a good drunk but wouldn’t marry me. We meet after I move west. There we were on our way to visit his family, a whirl wind love drive down the west coast to northern California. He stops somewhere north of Santa Barbara to call, to announce our arrival. His father shouts at him in Spanish and Rudy answers with the few words he knows. He begs his father to speak slower. There are tears and pleading and Rudy turns his back to me and the wind is such that I can’t hear exactly though I get the gist of things. Don’t come here with that blond girl. He has a nice Mexican girl in mind. Go ahead, marry her, his dad says, but you’re on your own. I watch Rudy drop to his knees after he hangs up, crying and lips trembling. He shakes his head no, no; we’re not going to visit. We go east instead, across mountains and prairies to my family.
There we spend our last dollar on a couple of chocolate bars and eat them on the lush green lawn of some supermarket, contemplating our situation. We don’t have jobs or a place to live or any real plans. One brother puts us up in his apartment as long as he can as best he can until we find something, until his roommates say we have to go, us and the two dogs, and our broken down car. Did I mention the dogs? The puppies? We are silly and naïve and full of bad mistakes. My family helps anyways, welcomes Rudy in. But it doesn’t last, me and Rudy. Not so long after he heads back to California to work for his dad.
The alcoholic firefighter and the cancelled wedding come next and after him the accomplished philanderer, the one who hits on my girlfriends, chatting them up while I’m there, getting their phone numbers, just in case. “My car might break down and I’ll need to call someone” he says. “You never know”.
Then I get lucky. Or learned a little from past experience. Or grew up. Or came to some sort of understanding or acceptence. In any case, most all the siblings come to the wedding. We marry at our home, the house my husband to be and I buy together. The day before the wedding we all gather round the kitchen table and carve pumpkins. My sister and I go to the local nursery where we pick the last of the sunflowers and dahlias from the fields, before the first frost of the season. When we wake the morning of the wedding, the garden, the grass, the entire field in front of the house, is covered in a blanket of frost. We all help set up for the wedding. We put out pumpkins with candles that we light at dusk as the dancing starts. We unfold chairs and tables. We put flowers in canning jars on tables with white table clothes under a canopy that’s been set up in case of rain.
But it’s not needed; the day is unseasonably warm, the night crisp and starry. We feast on food and cakes made by friends. My parents watch the dancing, smile, even though they don’t dance or really approve of such things. And the next day, in the unseasonably warm sun, my mom sits, with her beer, the beer she pours herself from the keg on the porch, smiling.
Are we close? Are we functional? Dysfunctional? A little of both? I don’t know. Are we normal? Not always? Sometimes? All I really know is that this is what we have. Maybe it isn’t like relationships I read about or see, maybe it isn’t perfect but this is what we are. We are good and kind and do the best we can. Is there much else we can ask for ?
Now I am a mom. I got pregnant soon after the wedding. I bake cakes for my sons’ birthday. I listen to chatter about star wars and harry potter, about zombie games and basketball. I try to talk about school and his friends, about the river and birds. I walk with him to the pond and spend hours untangling fishing line. I hope we’ll be close. When people ask, are you close? I say, I don’t know. I think so. I hope so. I’m working on it as best I know how.
Someday my son will see my shortcomings. At some point he will probably wish he had different or better parents; ones who knew exactly what he needed just when he needed it. If my parents weren’t always the parents I imagined I should have, I wasn’t always the daughter they hoped for. I wasn’t always what they thought I could have or should have been. I know how children can pain parents, the sorrows they can bring. The joy. I hope I will do well, no matter the nonsense, no matter the missteps, that someday I will have earned my beer on a patio, in a pale October light, on a day that should be cold but is warmed instead by an unusual late season heat.
(this was written several years ago – i just keep rereading and editing it and wondering if i should post or not – thanks all for reading – and my family – forgive me my errors and pollyanna tendencies)