Good morning this Wednesday morning. Where I am, the sun is still behind the thick early fog; even the Oakland hills aren’t quite visible yet. The puppy is at my feet, chewing away at her toy tire, and my morning candle is a needed thing in this just-undusk.
What does family mean to you? Could it ever mean anything uncomplicated again?
This morning, I would like to bake bread: turn on the radio and dial the tuner to an NPR station, get out the hand mixer, and toss the oats and honey and yogurt and blackened bananas and nutmeg and salt and baking soda into a bowl — I’d like to be preparing something to feed your family. I’d like to prepare something to feed this little family that I am dancing around on the edges of. I’d like a slow morning, with laughter and investigation and silliness — everybody reading their own piece of the paper, sharing sections aloud, asking what the others think, while the puppy takes up her place on the living room carpet and disassembles her toy.
There’s something I would like to write about family, but it’s not quite time yet. There are some topics that are private, are for inside writing, are for notebooks and handwritten journals.
This is what I will tell you: I have generally felt, since 1994, that I was outside of family, that I didn’t belong to the body of anybody’s blood. Do you know what I mean? Family became an abstract word to me, a sort of violence that I no longer had to participate in because I had been ejected. I walked away. Of course that’s not true: I didn’t just walk; I ran. Family was never an abstract violence; it had come to mean either abandonment or captivity and terror. The second ten years of my life managed to wholly undermine and undo the lessons of the first ten years, which had taught me that family meant pleasure, safety, silence, worry, and laughter.
Last week I spent time with my blood family: my father, my sister, their partners. We met at the top of the middle of the country and spent several days generally adoring one another’s company. We ate together, drove out into rainstorms and then were finally safe enough with each other that we could huddle together in a tiny space, to get away from the hail, without feeling at risk. Let me not use that royal we — I had to sit in a tiny space in the front of my dad’s wife’s jeep, wedged between my sister and her husband on one side and my father in the driver’s seat, and nothing in me was afraid or on alert. I am only just realizing this now, five days later. In the moment, when my body was shoved close to my sister’s and my father’s, I didn’t feel anything but amusement at the situation and a general (normal?) satisfaction at being with them.
It didn’t used to be this way. For years I was uncomfortable being too close to my sister — I was afraid that my very presence would do a violence to her. I was hyperaware of where her body was in relationship to mine.
And in the early part of this journey away from trauma, when my father and I became aware of how broken our relationship was (after the conversation in (was it?) 1995 or 1996 when I had to tell him (my sister told him first, she broke the ice, she was the brave one) what had happened to us when we were out of his custody and being kept away from him at our mother’s husband’s house) — how do you use those sorts of words with your father? How do you find the language to describe to your father — he who had been meant to protect you — what you had to do to and beneath a grown man’s body? Talk about unspeakable. I kept most of the words to myself; he heard them when my statement was read into the court record in lieu of testimony, during my stepfather’s trial. I spent those years keeping a distance from my father’s body. I forgot — or it was no longer an option to remember, and so I released — a child’s easy comfort with a parent’s physical being.
Do you know what it’s like to be jealous of a young boy leaning in on his mother’s body, like that’s a safe place for him? Like that’s a place he deserves to belong?
My family and I have been working at this thing of reconnection and recovery for a long time. We have worked at this thing of reclaiming a sense of family that is safe and possible, both new and old. During our days together last week, I felt a new (or old?) kind of ease around them: there were no major meltdowns, no massive triggers, and, this time, the tears that came were mostly joyful ones. And I sat in that jeep, pressed close to my father’s body, and smelled the cologne that he’s worn all of his life and felt only familiarity and gratitude.
There were years when I could not have imagined this, when I thought family would always and only mean loss. Now I am wondering about something new.
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