Sunday, October 16, 2005

Family Summit

Last weekend, Columbus Day weekend, my 17 year old daughter and I made the trek down to Summit, New Jersey and back in the pouring rain. We went, quite spontaneously as it turned out, because it worked out for us to go, but for months I had been jostling the idea back and forth. I figured, I don't see my immediate family branch up here so why drive 300 miles each way on the rainiest weekend in months, pay for a nice hotel room, only to be subjected to possible upset? Well, to prove a point for one (I am a part of the extended family and there are many first cousins once removed and second cousins whom I enjoy). The second and perhaps primary reason was because my daughter is at that age where her roots begin to mean something. And finally, I wanted to see the houses that my grandmother always spoke about in Summit: Avebury, Lindum and Little Lindum. She painted a blissful picture (Summit is still a bucolic suburb) and always colored her childhood with the broad brush strokes of reverence and rememberance. At the center of her brood of nine siblings were her beloved mother and father, true Victorian scions of a modern 20th century family. Our cousin Bob put together quite a reunion program which included a walking or driving tour around Summit family haunts. It is always good to know where we come from (at one point, my daughter turned to me and said, "I didn't know we were a family of so many WASPs..."). She wasn't being derogatory in any sense of the word--there was almost an awe and reverence to her observation.

We walked in mid-day on Saturday, a bit drenched, and the first person I saw was an aunt who recently accused me of "taking the best things" from the farm. As no one had acknowledged my flabbergasted rebuttal of six weeks prior, I didn't expect or plan to get into anything at the reunion. I did not go to cause trouble. So, we just avoided each other all weekend, acting like the elephant wasn't in the room. Meanwhile, I discovered that one of my uncles actually screens my other aunt's (mother's sister) e-mails so she never even read any of the crap that I was hurling back in my own self defense! Ah, and then there was the "Dance of My Mother's Third Husband" as I came to call it--they'd appear around the corner at the elevator, he'd look at me and slip down the staircase (we were four floors up). "Just slip out the back Jack, make a new plan Stan, don't need to be coy, Roy...just set yourself free." I saw him at the bar later that night, first in line, and he looked away. The crowning moment was when I was heading up Sunday morning to pack, the door opened to he and my mother standing in front of the elevator waiting to come down. No avoidance this time. I said, "Hello, W.", with all the sincerity and arch tone, I suppose, that Seinfeld reserved for Newman. No response. My mother fluttered about and I just walked down the hall, tired of the humiliation (he'd actually been ignoring me and my children intermittently for four years). The night before he actually said in front of my daughter, "Well, I think you know whose table I'M avoiding!" That prompted a terse e-mail response upon my return.

Ah well and as you might know, WASPs don't like to confront uncomfortable situations. I have in the past year taken a different tact: I confront them, much to my own further isolation within the family. It is uncomfortable this woman who will not enable bad behavior in others and who no longer minces around the truth or won't sweep things under the carpet as the rest of the women in her family. I'm all for taking the damned rug out of the house, hanging it on the clothesline and beating the merry h#$% out of it with a carpet beater! As I grew up often criticized for everything I did or didn't do by some of the women in the family--or things I did well were rarely acknowledged--I've finally decided to speak for myself. [Ok, this is really a leap into "Reality Television" land--too much BONADUCE, I fear--but I think my weight issues have to do with see? I can still be this person and do these things AND be "fluffy" as my friend Judy so sweetly terms it...I don't have to be an emaciated skeleton to accomplish my goals or be accepted. Besides, imagine if I'd been left alone when I was only 20 pounds overweight back in high school? Women can be their own worst enemies.]

The highlight of my weekend? One word but three people: BOB. My mother's older brother who sat with me at dinner and who has been incredibly supportive of me and my husband--and observant--during some difficult months (at one point during dinner he leaned across the table and said to me, "It was an incredibly brave thing to come down here, you know"); my mother's first cousin who organized the reunion and whose entire branch of the family, along with his wife and twin brother, is a pleasant breath of functional fresh air (they know how to laugh at themselves and with each other); and finally, another Bob who married into the family and who always gives me a big hug and says hello. A true gentleman. There were other highlights, too: seeing my French cousins again after many years, meeting others, and learning that the reunion organizational baton had been passed to my generation of cousins--the great-grandchildren of J.A.T. and H.A.T.

None of my generation of cousins ever knew our great-grandparents and some of us didn't even know our grandparents, but their legacy lives on in their descendants. It is a great family that we come from and no group is perfect, no person is perfect, but after the shakedown of the past year in my own family of origin--largely over the farm but there are other issues, too--I realize it is important to look beyond and to find "family" in good friends and relatives who get it, and those with whom you want to spend time. I know each branch has their own issues--another even has their own squabbles about another family farm--but taken as a whole, we're a great and diverse bunch, as nice as you're likely to find anywhere else. I'm looking forward to the next family "Summit" in Florida in 2010. And I will bring all of my family to that one as our boys will be a bit older and likely to have more fun with a bunch of relatives. At this reunion I was so pleased with my daughter who mingled with ease and poise and has the diplomatic skills of the finest Foreign Service officer. Her grace and beauty will take her far. (I was also grateful that she is one heck of a driver, logging at least 3 hours each way and most in rain or difficult traffic.)

A cousin from another branch made an astute observation about myself and several other women in my generation--"You are mold breakers," she said. "You are setting out to make your own matriarchies and careers of interest while forging your own way independently from your family. It is a hard thing to do, but you're doing it." I was proud to be in the good company to which she was referring. And that is really what it is all about in the end: making our own way separately from the places and people we come from. Legacy is a strong word--whether in a family expectation or a family business or a house--and sometimes we just have to start making our own. Yet it is nice, too, to have a cushion of common DNA to fall back on from time to time. The reunion weekend gave me enough to sustain me for at least another five years--in the meantime, I'll fall back on the more immediate DNA of my own household and the refreshing diversity of an extended group of friends.

It's time to put things behind me and start along with visions for my own clan, my own book, as it were.

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