I have been in Kansas. I’m not there, anymore. (Guffaw.)
For a long weekend, I returned to the state of my upbringing to attend the ‘marriage ceremony’ of one of my oldest and dearest friends. She and her husband had married in Las Vegas some months back, but this was their opportunity to hold a small, semi-formal ceremony with family and friends present.
The trip back afforded me the opportunity to spend time with my friend, her husband and her family. I also found a day to visit with my own family, my mother, two brothers and their respective significant others and my nephew. It should be no surprise that with the way I live my life, such meet-ups are rare events.
The day before I flew back to Kansas, I received an email from my father with the not-unexpected news that my grandfather had passed. My father has been letting us know for some time that his father was not well and that doctors did not expect him to live much longer. The question was not so much, ‘When?’ but ‘How soon?’
The passing of my grandfather is a moment that brings into stark relief how distant I am from my biological family. My father’s family mostly all lived in California, and his parents in particular never left the city of Los Angeles. Though they immigrated from Mexico I know very little about their past and have found myself on multiple occasions being stumped by someone asking, “Where in Mexico did your grandparents come from?”
The truth is, I know next to nothing about the side of the family that gives me my surname. This is, of course, a fault of my own, having never invested much time in getting to know them or even asking my father about his family’s history. At the same time, it also represents the peculiar temperament of my immediate family, a group of five kids who have always seemed most comfortable disconnected from a whole, like islands in an archipelago.
I can’t speak for my other siblings, but for me, relating to my extended family has always felt perfunctory. I am the youngest cousin by some years on my mother’s side, and I am one of the youngest on my father’s, and generally removed from all by both physical distance and social placement.
The passing of my grandfather stirred a sense of melancholy in me, but I know it stems not from a sense of personal loss (as the tangible hole in my personal life is unfortunately minute) but because I know my father and his siblings are feeling an acute loss and I have little to offer in terms of comfort. Another familial trait: We do not mourn publicly.
Whatever little tribute I can give to my grandfather, Juan, it should be known that from him has come offspring of great diversity, children and grandchildren who are living lives that bespeak the American Dream, that same dream that presumably compelled him and his wife to move to the United States in the first place.
May that be his legacy.
Back To Kansas
With the knowledge of my grandfather’s passing fresh in mind, I boarded a plane to return to Kansas. I spent the majority of my first three days there with my friend and her parents. Being an outside observer of a family is always fodder for interesting rumination, particularly when that family is in the midst of a high-stress situation, like, for instance, preparing for a wedding.
The little things that are done or said may appear small and insignificant to the outsider, but these seemingly petty slights are magnified by the proximity and familiarity that exists in a family. I came into a house where the parents and the children were clearly frustrated with each other and even the natural pairing of married couples didn’t insulate each individual from at times being clearly flustered with their partner.
At the same time, the loving fellowship between these close family members was a totem on a shelf meant only for me to view from a distance. Unless I was there for the creation of a joke meme or had participated in some piece of mutual history, mostly I had to enjoy their revelries through a telescope. They are a family, with all the requisite ups and downs. But they are not my family.
The Sunday following the ceremony, I spent entirely with my family back in my hometown, Lawrence. Longtime readers of this site may recall that my returns home have not always been the most successful. Arguments, blizzards, missed flights, freak cat attacks have all found a way into the reunions. Any return to my hometown is always overshadowed by a aura of possible (probable) doom.
But we’re getting better at mitigating the more avoidable disasters. Political talk, even in this election season, was kept to a minimum. Other than an unfortunate conversation with my mother that took a turn for the contentious (for no reason other than the train took off and I never took the prudent move to jump off), the interactions between our family as a whole were remarkably amiable. It probably helped that we only saw each other for one day.
I have had various friends/girlfriends be the outsider on my family gatherings (including my recently wedded friend) and I can only imagine what kind of perverse Reality-TV-cum-Court-TV world we must look like when we get going at each other. I don’t feel particularly close to my family yet, in the sense that I can’t imagine being a part of any other family, there is a peculiar and deep closeness to the way we butt heads. Yeah, we’re miserable sods, but we’re miserable sods together.
But I left Kansas as I always do, as I always will, and returned to New Orleans, a new home, but my home nevertheless.
Traveling as I do can be exhausting and nerve-wracking and frequently lonely, but make no mistake: I lack not for family.
Family is the partner who drinks with me until the sun rises. Family is the cohort who eats shitty-but-delicious nachos from a dive bar not because it’s the only food that’s available, but because why would we want anything else? Family are the coworkers who hang out together long after clocking out. Family is the friend who confesses a past she’s never told anyone else about because she knows secrets are always safe with me. Family is a woman who makes me smile from 1,000 miles away.
And, yes, family is the people whose political, religious and musical opinions makes me want to scream.
Because despite everything, it’s all relative.