Monday, December 2, 2013

Holiday stress & the American family tree

(589 words)
I received a phone call about six months ago from a man I never heard of about the death of a woman I’d never met asking me to convey the news to the brother with whom I no longer speak.

It’s a dysfunctional family affair.

The woman was a sweet half-sister, the love child of a father I’d grown up thinking had been forever faithful. And maybe after he met my mother he was, but we never knew prior to that papa was a rolling stone. He never told us he’d been married twice previous to Mom with one of the brief unions producing a daughter from whom he’d ran away.

And here I thought all these years the old man’s biggest flaw was being sneaky about his actual golf score.

The half-sister I’d never met came crashing into my life about five years ago after she’d read a story I’d written for Pittsburgh Magazine about the death of my, er, our father.

She wanted to know more about him and we’d kept in friendly touch every six months or so until the cancer treatments swamped her life in the months leading up to her recent death at 55.

I hope she and our father are in heaven right now making up for all that lost time.

I’ve come to believe families are God’s way of proving we are utterly powerless to help even the ones we love the very most.

We want our parents to stay loving and true, our siblings devoted and all the rest of our familial fairytales to have happy endings. My brother and I become estranged in 2011 over his absentee criticism of the way I care for our mother.

It hasn’t bothered me, really, because we were very close for almost 50 years and 50 years is a long time for a conservative to love anything that doesn’t involve the 2nd Amendment.

But that’s the way it is with many families.

I enjoy watching “The Waltons” because it is about a big, loving family that perseveres through hardships and challenges common to the era.

But I also for different reasons enjoy watching “The Walking Dead,” another show about a big, loving family that perseveres through hardships and challenges common to the era.

I saw a bunch of news stories this year about how the families seated around the Thanksgiving dinner looked vastly different from the ones at John and Livvy Walton’s table.

Welcome at the family table today are a diverse group of ex-husbands, ex-wives, blended families, mixed races, same sexes and all manners of the kind of joyful untraditional unions that cause Rick Santorum to say, “Ick.”

People say the break-down of the American family is tearing apart our society and I can see merit in the argument, but I also understand how tricky managing all those relationships can be.

I guess that makes me like the old -- and he was born old -- comedian George Burns who said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring and close-knit family -- far away in another city.”

I wonder what my Thanksgiving will be like in 15 years when our daughters have grown up to have boyfriends/husbands, girlfriends/wives or some as-yet-to-be-determined demographic “other.”

I’m sure I’ll just roll with it. 

What choice will I have?

After all, as my own family history proves, divorce, infidelity, dysfunction and sibling estrangement have done untraditional things to the traditional American family tree.

They’ve forked it all up.

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