For the last few days, I’ve been sitting at my computer suffering from writer’s block. It isn’t that I had nothing to write about. It’s that I had too much to think about. And the question that was moving through my brain was what to write about first
Today, I knew. Everything else was remote to me. Something I could write about in isolation to what I was feeling. Something that was in my head and not in my heart. Today, I knew I had to write about my family.
I’m the youngest of three girls. I love my sisters but I wonder if I really know them. My oldest sister and I were strangers to each other. We lived in the same house and went to the same schools. We shared biology but not much else. We did share the belief that you are supposed to like and love your family. So I sent her long letters and weird cards when she was away at school and she came to the concerts I sang in. But we didn’t know each other. And slowly we grew apart. It was easy to tell myself that it was because she didn’t live close to me. But, in truth, I believe that we would have grown apart even if we had lived in the same city.
My other sister and I shared a great deal more than biology. We shared the same room for several years when we were growing up. She was the one who sat me down and told me the facts of life. She made summers when we were shipped off to a lodge from the day after school until Labour Day bearable. She made me laugh. We shared the same profession. But I know that I don’t really know who SHE is even though I have seen her more frequently than my oldest sister. I do know that this sister promised my mother, as she was dying, that she (this sister) would make sure that I “didn’t lose my family.”
Interesting. I don’t think I ever ‘had’ my family.
And each of my sisters has two children. And I don’t really know them. My nephew is a very talented musician. His sister, who is a graphic artist and jewellery maker, has a wonderfully weird sense of humour and a well developed sense of the absurd. These are things which we share. My oldest niece is very artistic as is her sister. Again, something which we share. But, I don’t know them. That’s funny since I have always prided myself as being a ‘great’ aunt – an essential person in their lives and someone who enriched their lives just by being a part of their lives. Again, it’s easy to point the finger at geography for the reason for the separation I feel. But that’s much too easy.
When I taught a senior English course, I created an Independent Study Unit for my classes. I titled it, “In Search of My Family History”. And I would tell my students that they were all very lucky because they knew the members of their family and the family history. But I wonder now, as I sit here, if they ever really knew their family members. Yes, they might know their family story but did they really know their family members?
I would posit a guess that they probably did not.
I know that the family I experienced was not the family which either of my sisters experienced. We shared the same parents and lived in the same space but the family which each of us had was very different. I know, too, that each of us carved out a space for ourselves in that family – a niche for us to fill, a space and persona within our family collective that was unique to each of us. But was that really who any of us really are? Who we presented was who we thought we had to be in order to be accepted and loved and to ‘fit in’. It was the only way we each knew of how to fit in and be acceptable and be safe. We really did live out the saying, ‘What you see is what you get.’ Yet, I know that we each hid who we really are.
I wasn’t until last April that I came to understand inside mySelf that I didn’t know anything about my family. My oldest sister and I both went to the same program. On the first day, when we all checked in about where we were and what we were feeling and what we were bringing into the program as issues or concerns, my sister revealed to the women there assembled how she really felt about being in a program with me. She owned how she felt. She told her truth. She no longer held as valid the ‘truisms’ which we had believed about family.
To say that I, initially, felt blindsided would be an understatement. At the time, I didn’t know how to feel about what she had the courage to own out loud. And I know that her ability to say what she needed to say and own it all changed our relationship. No…I didn’t shut down or feel upset or feel hurt. I was, initially, confused but, from that confusion, we have been able to reveal ourselves to each other in a profoundly deep way such as we had never been able to do before. When I consider my oldest sister now, I do not think of her as ‘my sister’ first. Rather, she is herSelf first who also happens to be my sister.
And then, in November, I was in a different program with one of my nieces. On the second day of that program, I asked to be the first person to check in after the mid-morning break. It took all the courage I could muster to own to the assembled group of women and especially to my niece just how I felt about being in two different programs with her this past year. I no longer chose to hide how I was feeling or tell myself that it didn’t matter. I could no longer worry about upsetting the status quo. I could no longer fear losing my niece if I revealed to her and myself what I was feeling.
Interesting that I do not now think of my niece as ‘my niece’ first but as herSelf who also happens to be my niece. Our relationship has changed for me because I said what I needed to say. And my relationship with mySelf has changed for good because I chose to speak my truth.
And it wasn’t easy to confront my fears and speak my truth, and I am not the same person for finally having spoken my truth – out loud and publicly.
Does sharing parents and family story mean that we must believe that we unequivocally love each member of our family? Does loving mean that we have to like as well? The challenge to us all is to acknowledge to ourselves what we feel about ourselves and about each of our family members. Yes, we might decide not to engage with some of those family members once we own up to our truth AND we will know our family as who they are to us. Just consider the potential that holds for each of us.