As the days creep toward the holidays, there seems to be a cluster of fluttering moths convening in my center, nervy wings that startle and annoy. I am not usually an anxious person so could find no reason why it was happening. It took days to decipher but I’m onto the root cause: family. You might imagine I’d be sharp enough to understand this from the get-go, i.e. holidays and family equals love/wants/needs/complications. They arrive as a package deal. But I will have to face again the reality that all is seldom plummy perfection within hallowed halls of tradition and (most earnest) good will.
I have a decent-sized family, notable for its combinations of five: I am one among four other siblings (now three, as my oldest sister passed in April). Parent of five grown children. Grandparent of five grandchildren. There are more–nieces, nephews, in-laws, cousins too far away and so on. It’s like many constellations of relatives. Not all reside in my city, which is a shame, because I happen to like my family very much, most all the time.
But there are those particular moments that have come and gone, even likely to surface again. Or newly develop. Everyone is spectacularly themselves. Every person has traits beloved and others less pleasurable. Any room outfitted with persons who share a well-defined gene pool and/or personal histories can become a stage. And the many players get to suss out connected or opposing themes, elucidate unique thoughts. It gets sticky. It can get painful if one dwells on a snide remark. Perhaps even dislocating as a sad or embarrassing event is revisited by several–as if such times require detailed recall. But wait, holidays are supposed to be fun or at least congenial. Affectionately shared.
So is that what’s going on in there, this jumble of restlessness like bouncing balls looking for a target? It’s not simple but neither is the feeling impenetrable. The sudden flashes of uncertainty are emitted from a deeper source. I’ve turned this thought over and beneath it is the source: my own fears. They live within the gauzy, clinging mythology of family ties.
We grow up despite ourselves, I suspect, and when we get closer to a sense of personal cohesion we find there are still more loose ends. For years I nurtured a vision of my life and extended family built on ground I imagined as above a flood zone. Deep in the center of me resides a powerful belief that despite any difficulty life will prevail and do so beautifully. No one would drown if my will was involved. I was taught to maintain this regard for family. And always to show our best sides. But it hasn’t always been a rock solid or as fine a unit as I want to contend. Let’s face it: we all–meaning homo sapiens– have issues.
Another person who is pulled to family connectedness is a brother’s daughter, a fine amateur genealogist. She has excavated curious, fascinating bits and pieces over decades. Like my maternal grandfather Kelly, a farmer, being an enthusiastic inventor albeit with a hot temper that could alienate. Or a paternal distant cousin who was an opera singer and another, a travelling faith healer. Our blood ties us to stalwart, innovative German and poetic, resilient Irish-Scotch-English stock (if I may generalize a moment)–that is, all viewed in the best light. I claim my heritage, despite the anomalies. I have claimed myself as more or less acceptable despite spiritual trials, impulsive adventures and a few life and death scenarios. The tough stuff has been a not very honorable contribution to the family schemata. There are a few tales of those distanced or lost to our family, as well. We have absorbed tragedy and triumph as families do, with occasions of fanfare but often in quietness, with due respect.
Which brings me back to those pesky moments of anxiety about family. I mean to interrupt or allay them here–and hereafter.
I have a habit of daily taking stock of my thoughts and actions. I know my spiritual routine depends upon honesty, at least all I can summon. This arose somewhat from decades of life embedded in the landscape of recovery from alcoholism, but also from a childhood instilled with the ways of faith. No, rather sprung from faith, for I cannot recall a time when I did not feel responsible for the quality of my life and the impact it might have on others. I take my daily review seriously, yet know I am not alone in the inventorying. God’s wisdom shores me up; compassion rescues me from the rubble of errors. I can even laugh at my follies. One cannot upbraid one’s self without a dose of humor–lest we become self-flagellating and ego-intensive (a bore to even myself).
And yet… as I review all this, I root out that niggling of worry: will I hold up well enough, ensconced in peace during the annual gatherings, amid the spectacle and sacredness and sumptuous feasts? I admit I am not a jolly cook (check the debit box); I mean all the rest which is, as you know, considerable.
The holidays are arriving, anyway, despite a sudden desire to hold them off. (Okay, we considered taking vacation but rejected the idea fast.) I am now just busy adapting to the dynamic mix of falling leaves, our deluges and November winds. I power walk daily for as long as desired. Languish in ordinary passages of time fraught with nothing more than the next story’s opening paragraph, a movie with a friend or a short grocery trip. I feel wistful already for the hours of writing and solitary mornings, the evenings during which my husband and I dissect TV commercials and show scripts, share music discovered on radio or a few lines in a book. There is comfort in knowing what’s coming each day. There is comfort in not having to explain myself much. Or tick off endless items on a list.
Oh, why can’t I get to the point? The anxiety comes from wondering if I have, in actual fact, built a life on whole truth or not: have I been a good enough mother? Have I been kind to others, not just at holidays but most days? There, it is said. Have I been enough. A good grandmother and sister? I think of our children who will be here and wonder if there will be what they need and want. Will they still be reasonably pleased with our home and food, the gifts chosen, the conversations embraced, the events I want to include them in? And what of those not here? I think of them all year, in specific ways during holidays, and wonder if they truly miss us. (One is a chaplain. Is she also a bit frayed at Christmas?)
Or will I be found… wanting? And why, at sixty-five, does it matter much what my children think? Well, I’m a mother who loves her own wildly yet steadfastly. But I have also been an individual who has not always pleased them.
Years ago, so long that these events are close to forgotten (if my reaction was not), I got a couple of letters at different times from a biological child and a child brought to me by marriage. They had decided to clue me in. On my errors. Page after page informed me of their displeasure, how my faults had impacted them and a couple of bigger decisions caused insecurity or hurt. How my drinking (a few years off and on, toxic times despite my being “high functioning”, as my profession calls it) had caused heartache. Disbelief and a torrent of sorrow scooped me up. I couldn’t imagine that children to whom I gave so much, whom I loved beyond measure, could pronounce seeming judgement. They had held onto anger, and asked me to listen to their personal baggage, their hard work of growth. Apparently part of the journey included their viewpoints of me delineated, then held up like mirrors into which I was to unblinkingly gaze.
It worked. I registered their pain. I closed dreamed of their childhoods: wonders and crises, mountains of laundry finished at midnight, the emergency room visits. And awake, I berated myself–and then, them. I sank a couple inches into that swamp of mothering misery. Until my merciful sisters responded to my calls.
The first sister: “They were being quite brave and expecting you to be, too. Remarkably, they trust you enough to speak and be heard. I don’t think they intended to so hurt you…they know how you love them; you know they love you.”
I balked. “Do they? Love me? Do they really know I would do anything for them and have? Can they imagine my life at all or must I just witness theirs?” I wiped away tears, regaining a bit of dignity. “Because I don’t get this brand of honesty. Do they take such measure of their lives?”
The other sister: “No, kids don’t know how much a parent has to manage until they become one… and no, they cannot imagine your life. We can’t fully know theirs, either…and thank goodness. But they’re responsible and caring; they want to live right. You sure helped teach them all that.”
Thank God for my sisters. It took awhile to staunch the seepage from sharp words. Those which held me so responsible, asked me to be more aware, showed me they were working to find their places in our family and even within my embrace. And as citizens of a greater and harsher world. I searched myself and gained insight. I had to let the rest go. And lest you suspect my children ghoulish or at least seriously insensitive, let me give full disclosure. They did and still do offer me deep care and tenderness, joy and affection. Heck, they call me, text me, hug me! I yet find them all wondrous, worthy in and of themselves. It’s part of this mothering job, but it is also a privilege and blessing.
I recall when my mother died shortly after I turned fifty-one. The loss was unfathomable, a grief beyond my ken. I realized I was basically an orphan (my father had died years before). There was much we hadn’t experienced together, told each other, come to better terms with or understood well. I had questions. But we may never have been done, of course. There is only a certain amount we can know of another’s life, even family members. And who is to say we must know much less understand everything, anyway? Our words fall from our mouths and land where they like. Our actions are well-considered, or not. It all gets interpreted. Our lives entwine with many; a number are our historical, blood family. And we can choose to let certain things be or make them more complicated. Difficult. The mystery of love is that it exists, even thrives despite mistakes or demands, separations or regrets.
It seems I entered earth’s atmosphere with a drive to do more, be better. Yet I have floundered and stumbled, fallen far many times. The hope that I have held onto is that I can make amends, repair downed bridges, learn how to make stronger the points of stress within me that weaken. I have it on good authority I am not alone in this seeking. It is a human dilemma. We all are in the same fix, creating a whole life from many parts we are given. I want still to be a useful, compassionate person. A good woman made of vibrant colors and designs.
A very good mother who is a constant. The caring goes without saying–as do disagreements that may come along. If I still sometimes fear letting my family down, it is part of the territory. I accept I am miles from flawless. I am full of spirit, too, which originates in the eternal Light of God. I am tethered to this magnificent love; it keeps me grounded, even overflows. It is a fortunate thing, as I’ve found it takes a certain courage to consciously hold one’s place in a family whatever it consists of–to take the knocks, mishaps, other gaps in stride. We are part of one another, after all, through the thick and thin of it. And we never know when it will be our last celebration, as it was for my adored oldest sister.
So bring on the holidays, after all. I’ll be alright and better. I already long for those who will not be here, those passed over or just absent. I’ll light clusters of white candles, hold them up in prayer. But I am preparing for the good times as I start to plan. This quivering I feel is also anticipation, a growing excitement. It indicates a rising up of my soul as it accumulates energy. It will leap up, embrace others as it has before. Dare to be present among them, just as I am. My holidays will be well come, then soon gone again. I hope you, kind reader, find many ways to share your times of abundant heart and soul.