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The Family Ordeal, Updated

All happy families are alike, and they live somewhere I’ve never been. 

All weird families are screwed up in different ways, and please allow me to count them. I just returned from a seven-day family gathering that might be called a ‘reunion’ depending on the word’s definition.

My family seems to have been assembled with random pieces from a parts bin and bolted together without much thought on how, or if, the components mesh with one another. If I didn’t know better I’d assume we were orphans who happened to live under one roof through childhood and teen years, and then dispersed to far-flung zip codes.

Cleveland, Ohio was the family nestbut none of the four children, once taken off the leash, remained within 500 miles of what had been known as “The Best Location in the Nation.” My sister and younger brother went (separately) to New York City, the older bro planted his flag in South Carolina 50-plus years ago and I went to California. Geographically and culturally I finished in fourth place, but being stubborn I squandered most of my life there anyway. 

So for 2022 we reunioned ourselves in a vast brick house in rural Pennsylvania amongst the Amish and ourselves for what I usually describe as the family ordeal. The ‘rents died decades ago, and our youngest sibling, the one best at orchestrating family get-togethers, is also gone. It shows. 

My wife Trophy is of Italian descent and that also shows. For her, Family is Everything, blah blah blah, down to the cooking, the greetings, and the willingness to be in each other’s presence hours at a time, sometimes even in the same room.

She’s often stunned but mostly saddened at my family’s fragmented disunity, our lack of familiarity and emotional connection with each other. None of us, including missing parents and brother, has ever hugged another member of the brood in 70-plus years and counting. Kind words and warm exchanges among us were so few I’d probably remember one if I ever heard it.

You may be dimly aware I write a weekly column for the Ukiah Daily Journal, Monarch of Mendocino County daily newspapers, and enjoy a supporting role with the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the best weekly in the country.

No one in my existing family has ever asked to read anything I’ve ever written, although it’s possible they’re unaware I write. How would they know? I don’t brag or talk about it. I (self-)published two books, sent them copies of each, and as of Wednesday, August 9, 2022, haven’t had any response, written or verbal from my brother (sis once mentioned she liked the second one). 

My brother got married in the early 1970s and he and his wife have been together ever since, although they’ve lived in different states, having taught at different universities. My sister-in-law has never missed one of our family reunions and, as expected, attended this most recent one. 

Two or three months ago I googled her for the first time ever because, frankly, she’s rather famous. In the third or fourth paragraph it said she married my brother in 1971, and that they divorced in 1974.

Huh. Hmm. Well whaddya know.

Wife Trophy suspects my sister and her longtime husband also divorced a decade or two ago. Maybe so. He comes to all the reunions too. No one has ever asked if they’re still married. Ho hum, shrug, and whaddya know.

So yeah, that’s my family. We don’t exactly keep secrets so much as we’re indifferent to what anyone else in the family is doing and have no reason to inquire. Why we bother to rendezvous six or seven times a decade is unclear.

(It’s worth noting that the “youngsters” of our families, all in their 30s and even 40s, get along famously and happily. They chat and laugh and stay up late together to do more chatting and laughing.)

What my wife finds most perplexing is the lack of curiosity among us tribal elders regarding each other’s lives. Our orbits don’t cross, our interests don’t intersect, our concerns are ours alone and our futures have nothing in common.

Maybe it seems sad and desperate to those who believe we ought to be exchanging hearty hugs, asking personal questions, revealing private joys and hidden fears, holding back nothing and giving up everything in the name of Family.

Could be. Maybe so.

(Tom Hine was tickled to learn that, in the teeth of the worst recession in 45 years, California’s tone-deaf Democrats raised the state gas tax (!) hiked the Golden Gate bridge toll to $9.40 (!!) and will withhold issuing promised summer subsidy checks until October. TWK says “Let’s Go Gavin!”)

One Comment

  1. Laura Cooskey August 22, 2022

    As many brave warriors of recovery have noted, your REAL family is the one you choose, the people you surround yourself with in life– not the ones you happen to be born to or adopted by. Of course, people who had contented, functional, caring people as their growing-up families will consider those folks their real family, and they are lucky.
    As it is, many people would find your experience of excruciating family get-togethers all too familiar. I guess it’s the way nowadays, when society encourages us each to go pursue our individual fates and fortunes, and any collective family identity is discouraged. Unlike, evidently, in Trophy’s experience.
    The lack of hugs in your family is a bit more extreme than most. I think i more often see grimaces off to the side when a head is turned away from a tight hug. You might not enjoy them, but at least the show, the supports of the facade, require them. And if the reunions are not about that show (not to the world necessarily, just to ourselves or each other), what are they for?

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