I used to be part of a family. A large, mostly happy family; a family filled with love and a strong attachment to one another. Or that’s the way I seem to remember it.
Growing up there were six of us. My mother and father (technically step-father but he was with us from the time I was seven so the only Dad I really ever knew), my older brother, my two younger sisters, and another brother and sister born a good deal later, when I was in my early teens. There were dogs, many of them but a few special ones who stuck out, there were cats and rabbits and hamsters and guinea pigs and some cows and ducks and a goat. There were several houses, large and cluttered and filled with lots and lots of noise. There were decent cars and awful ones, minivans and pickup trucks.
There are a lot of bad memories, sure, but there are many others that are pleasant and warm. There were cook outs and camp outs; there was star gazing and storm watching (on a cement porch, bundled in blankets, and eating popcorn); there were vacations and trips and nights out in restaurants we probably couldn’t afford.
There was my amazing and beautiful and mostly joyful mother. There were the grocery store trips that, for a while, Mom took turns bringing kids to, a rare treat of one-on-one time. There was my first heartbreak in high school when, instead of lecturing or ‘teaching a lesson’ or saying ‘I told you so”, Mom brought me up a bag of chocolate chips, telling me that chocolate always made her feel better. There were fresh baked goods and warm hugs and a circle of kids on the floor listening to Mom read a book. There were movie nights and family dinners and the hard work of a devoted mother making sure the kids, when we were them, never really knew how rough things were. There was so much more than this; but my mother is more the feeling of my childhood than a particular memory in it. My childhood is the smell of her, the sound of her (humming while cooking in the kitchen), the feel of her. My mother was my first hero, my first role model, my first muse.
There was my older brother, three years older than me. When I was 10 and younger, I was sure that I would never feel closer to anyone than I did to my older brother. In my mid-teens I felt sure that no one would ever protect me from the truly bad stuff as well as my big brother. The time I knew that he was sleeping out in the cold winter of Chicago with nowhere to go, and I cried myself to sleep at night. Then, in my very early 20s, there were the weeks in which he took me into his home, despite the reservations of his roommates, and got me started on my own in the “big city” (of Burlington, VT) where he lived.
There was the youngest brother, 13 years younger than me. The most beautiful little boy I’d ever seen. So blonde and smiley and affectionate; so smart and sweet and good mannered. When he was a baby I doted on him, as he aged I marveled at him. Intelligent and funny in the way that could bring immediate and loud laughter to an entire room. He was so calm and collected he just flew under the radar and, later, became disgusted by the drama of “us.”
There was the youngest sister, 15 years younger than me. Beautiful and happy, she was passionately and vehemently full of life and energy. She grew into a clever and tender girl. Caretaking and nurturing. For many years she was my very favorite person alive out of everyone. She was, both of the younger kids were, my reason for being for several years.
And then, of course, there were the two middle sisters. One quiet and peacemaking, and so lovely and loving that the rest of us seemed to (willingly!) pale in comparison; and the other funny and adventurous and imaginative. The two were such close friends that I barely have signature memories of them. They were bosom buddies in a way that one imagines only happens on Anne of Green Gables. They still are today.
They are also, now, my very best friends. One of them took me in when I had nowhere to turn, and helped me find my way again. The other is the person to whom I turn first for everything. One of them is where I go for sage advice and wisdom, the other is where I go to get things off my chest and just let out a few expletives. One of them watches my daughter, the other one meets me out for dinner. They have celebrated me and supported me and educated and enriched me in ways that feel vital. Without them I would be, truly, lost and alone.
Because it’s just us now. Just the three of us. One by one the others have drifted or darted away. First it was my older brother who lost himself in alcohol (and very likely some form of depression or other illness), and retreated bit by bit. Then my younger brother. I’m not even sure where he went or what happened. I think he felt ignored and overlooked by us. He moved several hours away and cut off all contact. Then my youngest sister. Lost to addiction. Lost to intense mood disorder. Lost to herself and us. We’ve all tried to help her but it was never at the right time. She clings to us with a thread sometimes, reaching out to say hello and then disappear again. I’m hopeful she’ll come back, I remember when I was her, but for today she feels gone. And finally, my mother. Gone to her own mental illnesses, to the leftovers of her own dark past. That story is a post for another day.
It feels unreal to be this small of a group. Knowing that these other family members are around but uninvolved is a hard pill to swallow. Each one of them selected something, be it drug or anger or a lifestyle, over their core family. This happened again and again until just the three of us are left. I think, sometimes, it is the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be this way that hurts the most. It’s like grieving a person every single day, because you never know if or when they might come back but you’re pretty sure they won’t.
We’re lucky to have each other, of course, we say so often. But we also talk about what our kids are missing in not getting to know their aunt or uncles, in not having the grandmother we always expected our mother would be. We try to explain to our husbands that so-and-so didn’t always used to be that way and, “no, really, s/he used to be so…different.” We get sad listening to our friends talk about their mothers who stuck with them into adulthood and who have family holidays that are celebrations of togetherness and love.
I wonder what I would have changed, growing up, if I’d known all of our choices were leading us to this. I wonder if it would have made a difference. I wonder when this sort of thing stops hurting.
I wish I’d known that family wasn’t permanent.