It’s the holiday season, the time when families are supposed to get together. “I’ll be home for Christmas” and all that. But for some people in dysfunctional families or who’ve lost loved ones, that’s the most difficult thing about this season. I’m fortunate that my immediate family and I—wife, four children, and a grandson—enjoy one another. Except for one daughter whom I’ve lost to California, we live close enough that we see one another throughout the year.
This holiday season has me thinking about family in a larger sense, though. My wife and I each have a younger brother. Both of them have struggled with medical and financial problems for a long time. But recently we learned that both brothers have cancer, and things don’t look great for either of them. My brother asked me to help him with several issues, including drawing up a will, so I drove to SC (from Michigan) earlier this month, took him to a lawyer, and paid some of his bills.
While I was in SC my brother and I saw some relatives from both of our parents’ families. Those visits reminded me of how close a family can be or how distant.
In my mother’s family there are fourteen grandchildren. We’re all still living and none of us are in jail, as we say at our reunions. Most of those cousins are more like siblings than cousins. We communicate pretty regularly and help one another out. The lawyer who did my brother’s will was recommended to us by one of our cousins. When my last living aunt died a few years ago, her son asked me to officiate at the funeral (I’m an ordained Baptist minister).
My brother and I also visited our father’s sister. She is the one relative on that side of the family that I have any contact with. Her daughter lives two blocks from her, but we didn’t see her. I’m not even sure how many cousins I have on my father’s side—it’s nine or ten—and I think I’m the oldest but I’m not sure. One of my cousins on that side died a few days ago. That’s sad, yes, but it would be sadder if I had any idea what she looked like or knew anything about her life. I can’t remember more than three times in the last forty years when I saw her. And I have another cousin on that side whom I have never seen. I know she exists because I spoke to her briefly once when she called my parents’ house, but that’s the only contact I’ve ever had with her.
Since my childhood I have identified more with my mother’s family than with my father’s. It’s a sociological phenomenon that children spend more time with their mother’s family than with their father’s. That was true in spades for me. My mother’s parents lived in a huge, 19th-century house in a small town in SC. For a few years after WWII my parents lived upstairs in that house. Until I was four, that was my home, and all those cousins were my playmates. That house and my grandparents were a magnet that drew the family together. We were all there on the big holidays, and various ones of us would be there on a Sunday afternoon or spending a week during the summer.
My father’s parents lived not far from there, on a small farm in a three-room house, and not one of those rooms was a bathroom. They had an outhouse. My paternal grandparents were country people—hard-working, poor, and taciturn. I was in my 50s before my father admitted that his father had beaten his four sons (but never his three daughters). When his oldest daughter got married, Grandpa didn’t like her husband and told her not to come back home. For years she didn’t—one reason why I never got to know some of my cousins. My mother didn’t like her father-in-law, so we visited there infrequently and for as short a time as possible (so we wouldn’t have to use the outhouse). I can remember eating only one meal in their house. There were no family reunions.
So, when people tout this time of year as a season for families, I have to remind myself that it’s not that simple for everybody. “Where the love light gleams” doesn’t apply to every family, and that is unfortunate.