Note: This essay, inspired by a family visit, was written in 2012. Since then my relationship to family has been slowly transformed. It wasn’t something I ever spoke about, but a powerful internal shift had taken place. At the time, I had no idea that circumstances would conspire to put my love to the test or that I would take the plunge to help when needed and still feel as I did when I wrote the piece —that the most important thing in life is showing up for one another.
“You should’ve seen the elegant outfits your mother used to sew,” said my dad.
“Mother, show Ellen the photograph of you in the dress and overcoat you made for our honeymoon.”
There was pride in his voice and a tenderness that didn’t fit the picture I had of my parent’s marriage.
My god. He loves her. After all the kids and responsibilities, arguments and decades, he still loves her.
This is the surprising thought that flashed across my mind as my mother padded out of the room, unsteady on feet swollen and tender with neuropathic pain, in search of a photograph taken nearly sixty years ago.
In her late seventies now—short and round, with silver hair that used to be blonde, my mother was and still is an intelligent woman. She’s active in her church and community and the years have emboldened her. But in my youth, she was often overwhelmed by her role as a mother and housewife and her anxiety cast a shadow of insecurity over my upbringing.
Only as an adult did I come to realize that her anxiety rose from her fear— fear that her wellbeing and that of her children were dependent on people and circumstances beyond her control, fear that she wasn’t living up to the expectations of herself and others—fears I now understand.
Seated in the family room of the spacious suburban home I grew up in and where my parents still live, I observe my father reclined in his La-Z-Boy chair with a picture-window view of the Springtime landscape of my childhood: lush green pine trees and flowering dogwoods, azaleas and rhododendron.
He’s wearing khaki pants cinched at a shrinking diabetic waist, a striped button-down shirt and the sturdy brown walking shoes that have replaced the slick-soled leather loafers he was wearing when a slip in the yard broke his neck two years earlier. His glasses look bigger than I remember and, like my mother’s, his pale blue eyes seem almost as faded as his white hair.
I try to reconcile this gentle and vulnerable man with the often tense and turbulent father of my childhood, a man who was up to his neck in responsibility, strapped and strained beneath the demands of a wife, four kids and a mortgage.
Sometimes I recognize a similar turbulence in myself when I’m feeling worried and uncertain or out of control, when I snap at my husband Hank. But I am lucky. Hank has a solid sense of himself and is able to cajole me back to myself with humor in a way I envy and appreciate.
More than three decades have passed since I left home for college, taught high school math in suburban Pennsylvania, married, moved 2,000-miles across the country to New Mexico to begin a new life as a freelance photojournalist and then, to lead a nomadic life in Latin America. For many of those years I saw very little of my family.
But I’ve been thinking about family a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about what an erratic and absent daughter and sister I’ve been and how often I’ve shut my eyes and heart to my family’s struggles when being there for them wasn’t convenient. How I’d once believed that I had escaped their anger and disappointment, only to discover they mirrored the all-too-human fears and shame and judgement we all struggle with.
I can see now how ridiculous it was to think that distance separated me from their love or rejection. And how, even now, in middle age when I’m old enough to know better, I still pitch back and forth between kindness and coldness toward my family in a way I don’t do with friends or strangers.
As I sat there on the red checkered sofa in my childhood home looking at a photograph of my beautiful young mother all dressed up in her hand-tailored, Jackie-O-style honeymoon suit standing beside her smiling new husband who seems to be marveling at his good fortune, I knew that I wanted to be more present with my family, gentler, lighter and more understanding.
I suddenly wanted to see beyond the stories I’d told myself so many times about how imperfect my family was and how it would be so much better if they could stop being that way and be, thank-you-very-much, who I needed them to be.
I’d never given a lot of thought to my ambivalence toward my family, but in that instant, a flood of awareness washed over me and the differences seemed to disappear. Perhaps I was simply ready to see it, or experience it, differently, but this was a turning point and I knew it.
The longer I stared at the eager young woman in the photograph, brimming with potential and hope and dreams, the more I came to see that I needed to let go of the past and be a person who loves wholeheartedly.
And I do pretty well until I place my emotional burdens on my husband or I say something thoughtless or condescending to my mother, and then the whole thing can unravel faster than a ball of yarn.
In my worst moments, I snap and defend and blame, forgetting that we’re all in the same roiling river, each of us just trying to stay afloat until the next rapid.
To say that I’ve been absent, is only part of the story. Not for a moment growing up did it occur to me that imperfection wasn’t something to be ashamed of. So I think I had to leave to learn that I had the right to be neurotic and annoying and to make mistakes. And then I had to learn to extend those same liberties to my family members.
Here’s the thing: Wishing our lives, or families, were different is crazy. It can sap the vitality and pleasure and joy out of life and poison our relationships. It can send us to bed with a headache instead of out pursing passion. It can make us yell at our spouses, harden our arteries and our hearts.
But at some point, we look at a photograph, see two people in love, and we’re reminded that against all odds and past history, what withstands time and circumstance is us—humans merely being, as e. e. cummings put it—showing up for one another.
What about you? What revelatory insights and contradictions about love, life and family have you discovered?Use the comment box below to share or join the conversation on my facebook page. I’d love to hear your thoughts.