On the Families We Want

There’s an urban legend that Ernest Hemingway once won a bet among fellow authors over whether he could write a six-word story.  As the story goes, he won the bet by passing around the table a napkin upon which he wrote: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” No proof exists to substantiate the tale and it’s almost certainly completely untrue, but it entices, in part, because the six words evoke such a strong reaction in the audience.  We don’t know if the infant in the story died or never came to be at all, but the pain and anguish are universal.

More than three years into our adoption wait, I frequently think of Hemingway’s story, especially as I walk past the nursery or contemplate buying baby baubles. Every adoptive parent struggles with the wait and fears that it won’t happen. Most stories end happily, but the very real possibility that some don’t is the sad fact that makes Hemingway’s story so potent.

As I wonder when my son will arrive, it’s uncomfortable to consider the bad luck my family has encountered when it comes to meeting sons. My great-great-great-great grandfather, John Hargis, was murdered by pirates while on a trading cruise down the Ohio River on October 17, 1838. Eight months after his death, his twelfth and last child was born, John Arnold Hargis, my great-great-great grandfather.  History would repeat itself two generations later in 1904, when my great-grandfather, James Arnold Hargis, was born one day after his father, James A. Hargis, died. Hence, I’m exercising, eating healthy, and avoiding pirates.

I wonder if my great-great-great-great grandfather would find it fascinating that, 179 years after his murder at the hands (and hooks?) of pirates, his great-great-great-great grandsons met for the first time in a small restaurant in Huntsville, Alabama. I imagine he’d still be pretty upset at the whole pirate-murder thing, but he might find some solace in two strands of the family tree coming together.

When I met my cousin Ryan for lunch over Labor Day weekend, it wasn’t actually the first time we had ever met, but it was the first time I had seen him in over thirty years. I had vague recollections of meeting him when we were both very young, and so, meeting as 40-ish men, I think it counts as a first meeting. Now, we sat at a table next to each other, significant others in tow, sharing nothing but a common ancestry and a meal.

Over the next two hours, we covered travel, work, obscure movies, and our hopes for our children, including those present and those hoped for. I had a fantastic time; I think we all did. And I hope we get together again soon. Ryan’s wonderful girlfriend Lindsay said she could see the family resemblance in our eyes. I’m not sure I saw that, but it was enough for me to enjoy the feeling of growing my family. Hubby and I still wait patiently but eagerly for our little bundle of joy to bounce along, but the prospect of a new cousin with interests in common is pretty awesome too.

The sad vendor of Hemingway’s story didn’t get the family he or she wanted, or so it appears. And none of us do. It’s just not guaranteed; life isn’t fair. That said, moments like my Labor Day lunch remind me that family can be, to some extent, what we make it. That’s a hopeful thought and something to build on. Just stay away from the pirates.

On That Last Voicemail

The voicemail is dated September 24, 2016. It’s exactly thirty-three seconds long, and it’s from my grandmother. She died in January. I still haven’t listened to it.

And I’m not sure why.

I don’t mourn my grandmother with weepy emotion. Her death has not caused me great anxiety or to lose sleep. Yet she flits around the margins of my thoughts frequently. I wonder how my mom is doing. I guess as to what will become of her home. I ponder what my grandmother really thought of her life, and I hope she thought I was a good grandson.

Listening to her voicemail won’t answer any of those questions, though. I am entirely certain the message is a “thank you” for some flowers or card I sent. A routine call from my grandmother. So routine that, for all my care and concern, I felt safe not listening to it. I’d be embarrassed if she knew that. That I could take it for granted so easily.

Perhaps a part of me fears that the message will be a request to call her back. Maybe she wanted to hear the voice of one of her grandchildren, scattered away from her hometown as they were. And maybe, just maybe, that sweet request will cut right through me. Maybe I had to charge my iPod. Or watch a funny youtube video. Or organize my socks. I was just too busy to answer the phone that day. It’s typical and innocent and awful and ugly and sad, all rolled into one.

Then again, maybe my grandmother had the wisdom to not read too much into any one thing. Maybe that’s the great gift of the accumulation of years, to understand that our love is not measured in the moment but over time. Maybe she knew that. And maybe her call was just the slow, steady paddling of her love, always rowing in my direction. Doing her best, the best she knew how.

I know I’m making something out of nothing. A moment can be just that: a moment. Not imbued with high import or meaning. It’s just a voicemail. Of my grandmother’s voice.  Sitting on my iPhone. Waiting. And whatever she says, only my heart will be affected. She’s not there to call back.

I’m not waiting for some special moment to listen to it. I don’t feel like I’m keeping her spirit alive by not listening to it. It’s not some B-movie plot, a MacGuffin to spur blog entries. But, whatever it is and for whatever reason I’m keeping it, I can’t manage to hit play. It doesn’t feel like denial. It just…is.

If we knew with scientific accuracy how love and death work, life would be the poorer for it. I think both scramble up our hearts, and we spend years trying to make sense of it all. And maybe I’m just not ready to make sense of my grandmother just yet. Maybe I’m not ready to solve the puzzle, to finalize my theory on how and why she lived. Maybe keeping the final piece just out of reach, as benign as it may be, relieves me from having to do that. Not denial per se, but a prolonged break from the task of figuring out what the hell it all means in the end.

It will be a random Thursday afternoon. I’ll probably have just enjoyed a snack, maybe I’ll be watching rain clouds out my office window. I’ll look at my phone, see the voicemail, and hit play. Thirty-three seconds will pass. Tucked away far in the back of my heart, in a private chamber, a tiny tumbler will drop one last time. I won’t have solved the riddle of love or life and death in that moment, but it’ll be enough to just cherish the memories of her.

On Not So Great Expectations

My grandmother called me today. Just to say hello, just to say she missed me. It made my day.

It’s said that expectations are just resentments under construction, and I think that’s true. We expect too much from people, especially our families. Our loved ones should be super heroes. Without flaws. Without limitations. Always there. Always dependable. Always loving, caring, and kind.

The problem is that people have flaws and limitations. We all admit this, but I think it’s more difficult to accept than we let on. We expect parents to always do the right thing, always be there. They’re not people, they’re parents! We’re almost as tough on everyone else, siblings, children, grandparents, etc., and, honestly, we aren’t too much easier on friends.

Over time, our expectations do turn into resentments. She didn’t do this. He won’t do this. She never said this. He can’t be like this. During this slow accretion, our loved ones become caricatures or, maybe, just characters that populate the stories inside our heads. We return again and again to the shortcomings. We dwell on how they let us down. We put up walls. We build barriers. We hunker down. We wallow. We take a perverted comfort in the predictability of disappointment.

Unfortunately, our expectations blind us. We get wrapped around the axle about all that our loved ones don’t do, that we can’t see all the things they actually do. All the kindness, care, and love that is there. The wonderfully imperfect and imperfectly wonderful person right in front of us. I think the trick is to stop putting people in the boxes we’ve assigned to them along the way and trying to meet them halfway, in good faith.  I imagine, in the final examination, we’ll all look back and ask, “Why did I punish myself?” as we realize we were the only ones affected by our disappointments, our letdowns, our impossible expectations.

My grandmother calls a few times a year. She has no agenda, she just wants to hear my voice. Know how I’m doing. It’s uncomplicated. She can’t relate to my life, my career, all that I’ve done, but that doesn’t matter. She’s just calling because she cares.

Maybe we’d all be a bit better if we took the time just to hear our loved one’s voices. Sure, they’re odd, imperfect souls. So are we. We can let go of the unfulfilled expectations, and just focus on loving someone.

I have a few calls to make.

On When Mothers-In-Law Attack

My mother-in-law arrived for a weekend visit yesterday.

You’re waiting for the joke, right?

Of course you are, because mothers-in-law are comedy gold. They nag, they demand, they butt-in. At best, you enjoy a detente with her; at worst, she’s a perpetual thorn in your side. Or something like that.

Our enmity isn’t reserved for just mothers-in-law. Stock in-law characters abound. The father-in-law should be off drinking in a corner, crass, and always willing to share unwanted opinions. The sister-in-law should be needy, high maintenance, with a perpetual string of bad relationships. The brother-in-law should be recently out of rehab, need a few bucks, and root for a sports team you hate. The remainder of the in-law clan are straight out of central casting too, filling out the scene with an oddball cast of characters, sometimes entertaining, usually infuriating.

One of the most important functions of the in-law is the capacity to ruin a holiday. I’m not talking about Aunt Matilda having a gout flare-up. I mean full on, no holds barred, drama. Food may be thrown. Voices will definitely be raised. Life choices will be second-guessed. Huffs will be made. Tears will be shed. Conflicts thought long-settled will rise like a phoenix. Dishes will be washed with violent aggression. Football games will be watched in awkward silences. Promises will be made internally to never visit again.

It’s too bad we have this cultural hostility to our adopted families. I guess our antipathy is rooted in some kind of resentment about being forced to spend time with people we didn’t choose. We choose our spouse, but we get his family as a non-negotiable part of the bargain. You’re stuck with them.

But what if our national conversation about in-laws was different? What if the default setting wasn’t a punchline? What if the norm was an expectation to work toward fostering actual relationships with our new family members? Would we meet our in-laws with our guards down a little more, hearts a little more open? Would the price of losing some clichéd jokes be worth gaining new relationships that add color and variety to our lives?

My in-laws have been an amazing addition to my life. Uncle Riley fascinates me with his voracious reading and study of philosophy. He’ll profess to not know much, but the secret is he’s as well read and intelligent a gentleman as you will ever meet. And, then, there’s Aunt Penelope, with her academic and military pedigree.  Most importantly, she’s just plain fun. You haven’t experienced a family event until you’ve tag-teamed it with Aunt Penelope, standing on the sidelines, people watching and taking in all the action. Sarcastic remarks will be made, savored, and remembered! Hubby’s three brothers entertain me as they each travel their own unique paths through life, and his dad sheds light on a slice of life completely foreign to me.

So, when my mother-in-law Belinda arrived yesterday, I greeted her with a big hug, and I meant it. I’m looking forward to the weekend together. A true lady that, under those stylish clothes, is a real fighter. Wise from life’s lumps, she’s got a big heart and a vulnerability not born of weakness but of openness to life and its offerings. She’s also filthy rich with love for her boys.

Ultimately, whether it’s your in-laws or not, meaningful family relationships don’t just happen. You have to be open to them, and they take work. But it’s better than resenting time spent with virtual strangers. Your in-laws aren’t playing a part. They’re in your life because they love someone you love. And, who knows, maybe you’ll end up loving them too.

On My Grandfathers’ Ghosts

My family has a long, proud tradition of game playing. Board games and cards were staples growing up, and our annual family vacations wouldn’t be complete without a round of cards. Over the years, even our scorecards have developed traditions. As an experienced game and card player, I can tell you that nothing is more frustrating than when a piece or card is missing. Monopoly just isn’t as fun when the Boardwalk property card is missing, especially if you have a little OCD, which is also an enjoyed family trait.

“Missing things” run in families, but they don’t get a lot of attention. Maybe that’s why they’re missing. Or, maybe, good things and bad things get all the attention, and missing things fade away into those forgotten places where socks, discount coupons, and extra keys gather.

My grandfathers were missing. My maternal grandfather died before I was born. My paternal grandfather died five years ago. I can’t say I really knew either of them. It’s not unusual, as accidents, distance, and frayed bonds affect every family. What’s interesting, though, is that, unlike those socks, missing family members still have a presence.

As a younger man, I resembled my maternal grandfather to a degree, and I took an unusual pride in that. I’m certain it was because my connection with him was so tenuous. I didn’t know and still don’t know too much about him, except how fondly my mother thought of him. Sometimes I thought about what it would be like to meet him, to share my life with him, and it’s one of life’s minor cruelties that, instead of knowing him, I only felt the silent power his memory wielded. In some ways, my grandmother’s life froze when he died, set in amber never to change. We pity that, but maybe those who have loved and lost find a strange comfort in that sort of living death.

My grandfather died before therapy and “closure” were in vogue. Maybe that would have helped my family to deal with the pain and move on. They all did in their own way, of course. But, even when we have all been together, one cannot escape the feeling that something that should be there is not.

My paternal grandfather died five years ago, but, in so many ways, he too was more apparition than presence. We never lived close, and his battles with personal demons exacted damage on his family that may have been too much to overcome. I don’t really know. He was always pleasant and kind to me during the once- or twice-a-year visits, but he never seemed particularly interested in being a grandparent. Maybe it was a generational thing. Maybe I just wasn’t as fascinating as I thought I was, but that shocks the conscience to consider. I’ll never know.

The last time I saw him, a strange thing happened. As I walked out the door of his home, he gave me a big hug and followed me out to the porch. As I stepped away to leave, he said, “Next time, bring your friend.” I was not out to him and had never discussed my partner with him, but his meaning was clear. It was an odd intimacy that caught me off guard, a palantir with a vision of a grandfather/grandson relationship that I could not recognize. I said “Okay,” got in my car, and never saw him again.

One doesn’t usually mourn what one never had, and I don’t mourn my grandfathers. But I do feel their presence or, rather, the absence of their presence. I’m left with questions and riddles that do not bother me terribly, but, rather, fascinate me with “What if?” Whenever I hear someone share a story of their grandfather, I immediately think that I cannot reciprocate, that that piece of the puzzle will always be missing in an abstract way for me.

At the end of the day, you can play the board game without the missing token, and you can accept the fact that something isn’t quite right, something isn’t whole. Every family does it in one way or another, it’s part of the human experience. Perhaps the lesson is to not be that missing piece for those that you love, if you can help it. I want to live my life that way, and I’ve made a real effort to be an intentional, loving uncle to my young nephews. I live far away, but they know they are loved. I know I’ll always put in the work to be a positive force in their lives. I have a feeling both of my grandfathers would be proud.