2003-07-07 - 9:43 a.m.
I’ve been thinking about family.
I have nine cousins via Daddy's sister, my aunt Evelyn. On Mom's side there are six siblings. Those six have produced 13 children. This means I have a total of 22 known* cousins. I wouldn't recognize a single one. Why? Well, because Mom and Dad left Detroit about ten minutes after I was born and started moving. First to New Mexico, then to Arizona, then to California. Growing up there wasn't much money, which meant few trips "back home". Grandparent time was pretty limited. Daddy's father passed when he was 13. Grandpa Rzepecki died of bone cancer when I was 7.
The two grandmas (we called them Big and Little) were more complicated. Big was a deeply unhappy woman who vented her anger toward Mom and me. It’s unfortunate that my clearest memory of her is of an argument with Mom, which concluded with Big saying, “and take that pagan whore daughter with you!” I’ve tried to forgive her; by that time a stroke and untreated severe diabetes were taking their toll, but it’s difficult. Little Grandma was tough in a different way. She wanted a girly granddaughter, a child who would appreciate Barbie distinctions and wear pretty dresses to Mass. I had perpetually skinned knees from roller-skating on wet asphalt and had never been baptized. Poor thing, she gave up on me quickly in lieu of easier grandchildren.
Had we lived in Michigan, I would have grown up going to family Christmases with cousins, probably would have spent the night at their houses. I would have known my extended relations the way that they know each other – which I’ve witnessed on rare trips to Detroit. There’s no blame to be placed. My parents did the best they knew to do, which is all that parents can do. My relatives lived their lives without us, which is the natural thing. But what all this has meant for me is that family means Mom and Dad.
As I’ve made clear, Mom is a little loopy these days. She has good weeks and bad ones. On the Fourth we managed to get through an entire day gracefully. It helped that we had three dogs and two cats to shower with affection; it’s easier to love animals than each other. As I’ve also mentioned, Daddy says this is his last year in California. He wants to sell his property and move to Kentucky or Tennessee, where cost of living is less and the weather would be good for his arthritic knees. Mom will also likely move in the next few years in the interest of finances. My family, such as it is, is diverging.
When I left J, I gave up a niece and nephew, two sisters-in-law, parents – the whole package. This has always been a problem. Whenever a relationship ends, I lose an entire surrogate family and a lover. I miss his sister, the 40-something architect who took me to 99-cent Japanese import stores. I miss his mom handing me Dr. Ohta’s stomach tablets charged with cardamom and cassia bark. I miss the 11-year-old niece and 14-year-old nephew’s birthday parties.
I am a much-blessed person. Friends like Art Teacher, whom I’ve now known for half a lifetime, are so valuable it’s impossible to overestimate. Friends like Beek and Cec let me give and ask for love. But always, always, I walk around a little bit vulnerable. During the formative years, there weren’t enough places to go for support. I didn’t have anybody to ask for help. Mom and Dad worked full time, then came home to feed steers and muck out the chicken coop. They were just plain too busy. I became a woman who changes her own flat tires because it doesn’t occur to me that anyone will help. I became a woman who will give a loved one anything they need, anything, but has a hard time asking that loved one to feed my fish for a week.
Today I went to a website that my cousin Paul has created to celebrate family. There are links for each of the nine siblings, their spouses and children. There’s a lovely picture of uncle Clyde and Aunt Evelyn with eight or nine grandchildren. One of the girls, I don’t know her name, looks to be about eleven years old. She could be me at the same age. We have the same eyes, same cheekbones, same body type. I looked at her and looked at her, enlarging the jpeg until the pixels grew fuzzy, blurring our family resemblance.
*Daddy has a brother who disappeared in 1970 or so; no one knows what happened to him.
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