I’ve been sitting here for weeks wondering if I should write this. Actually, it’s been a few years in the making, but recent events put the final nail in the coffin, as they say. Coincidently, it all began with a funeral. Isn’t that commonly where the most in-depth conversation about family begins? With an ending?
I recently lost an aunt on my father’s side. I couldn’t attend the funeral because by the time she passed, she was already being put to ashes. But you know it really was a memorial because the family that could get back to New York, got together for a quick goodbye service. No, I take that back. It was really a drive-by checkout. I have family in the funeral business and I can tell you without a doubt, this had to be the fastest death-to-cremation I have ever experienced. The my aunt’s daughter felt it necessary to take care of this in a quick speedy fashion (i.e., get it over with) and so, like someone checking out of a hotel, my aunt was gone, new bedspread cleaned and replaced—life moves on. Considering she was well into her 80’s, how sad. She had a life that was likely full and rich with memories—rushed out, thrown in the fire and currently in a jar somewhere.
The end. As of this writing, there isn’t even an obituary.
Why you ask? You might think she was disliked, hated and despised. Nope. She was well-loved and in the past, as I have heard it, helped raised many of the cousins I know of today in addition to her own children during some of the hardest times we could imagine. I came late into this side of the family, not having known my father, his sisters and the endless well-spring of nephews, nieces, uncles and cousins until a couple of years back. I was welcomed into the fold and I suppose that doesn’t qualify me to think I know all the ins and outs of inner family drama … but I can only go by first impressions and compare them to the side of the family I grew up in. My final analysis: Aunt Katherine showed me love as if I was always in the family.
What could possibly be the reason someone would be so callous as to stop others from saying their goodbyes to a loved one? Ahh, but there you go. This isn’t about getting a job done so one can catch the next flight home in time for Oprah. This is about preventing others. If you quickly cremate the body, you won’t have to see the faces of people you don’t want to see. Never mind the people who loved Aunt Katherine. Who cares … she needs to get-ta-steppin’ before so-n-so gets here and I don’t want to see so-n-so no matter what.
The problem with that is my aunt’s daughter had a host of so-n-so’s she didn’t want to see, speak to or even associate with. Now imagine the potential wave of family arriving from the four corners of the Earth to attend her mother’s funeral … none of them she wanted to deal with … and you can likely understand her rush to put a fire under the process. Pun not intended.
Understanding is one thing. Appreciating her actions is another. From my playback of the actual memorial service, it ended up being a bitter feud the moment certain people showed up. Things got ugly, words were said, and people left. Some people didn’t show or even came late to avoid what already happened. From my take on the memorial service, it was very unbecoming way to say goodbye to someone who gave love so freely.
But you know what? It’s not Aunt Katherine’s fault. You can’t blame the dead for anything and look to gain a fruitful justification. You couldn’t blame her when she was alive. Do I blame her daughter? Her brothers? Who is to blame for such nasty outbursts at what should have been a time to reflect and remember? Well, I can tell you this … no one will ever forget that service.
Maybe it’s the time we live in. This era of drama. Perhaps I could have had a camera crew there to video tape a reality show because we all love to see the buildup and the crescendo of people simply acting the fool off-script.
Yeah, come to think of it. I do believe it’s the era we live in. We’d rather hate and shut out people we don’t like; keep a rolling list of people we don’t want to talk to and wear it on our shoulders for all eternity. Always keep the drama stoked and burning, though. Family? Forget family … or any other ‘F’ word you might think about. Family is those who I choose even if they are blood or not. That longtime friend down the block has always been honest to me. Shit, I’ll make him my new family and let my kids call him Uncle Joe. By the time my kids are adults, they’ll never know he never was a real uncle. Who cares.
Well, guess what? Regardless of who’s not talking to who and who we tend to want to strike from our list, your family matters and cares. Thinking about how few people there are out there you can trust, your family may just be all you got.
Now wait a minute … some of you reading this are cocked and loaded to spew your: I was raped by Uncle-Daddy, my brother never took care of my mother, my sister stole my whatsit and now whosit is having his baby, my cousin’s a career criminal, my father is in jail, I was abused, I was shot at, I was stabbed by, on and on and on and on and on. Name it … the greatest offenders on Earth will be the one who is in your so-called family.
I’m not asking you to deal with it. For some of those things up there, I suggest therapy, of course. I’m not completely, 100% Christian enough to even tell you to turn the other cheek. I’m not in your family to know the depth of how a family member ruined you … and what steps you take to adjust to what may have been a vicious assault upon you mentally and/or physically only you can decide upon (but the most important thing you do is make a decision on how to handle it).
This is only an observation by someone who didn’t get arrested, rape someone, offend, stab, murder, kill, have sex with, steal from my family … and didn’t deserve to not be able to say goodbye to an aunt who loved me. I can say the same for quite a few people in our family who did nothing to cross all parties concerned … and were cheated of a proper goodbye. We all need that when it comes to death … to be able to gracefully express endearments.
What happened that weekend was not graceful by any stretch of the word. Since then, I started thinking of the family I grew up in and I can assure you, they have their own jambalaya pot full of drama to call their own. People hating one another, people stealing huge from one another and businesses, not speaking to one another, refusing to let children visit or talk on the phone to so-n-so. Hate, hate, drama and more hate.
I say this to exemplify that drama is of this era; alive and well on both sides of my family and they don’t even know each other. This is why I have a little notepad in my back pocket at all times. All this is great stuff for future stories and character development.
If you want to know an era that knew how to handle the drama, you have to go to my grandparent’s age. Let me tell you something … all of my grandparents are gone; both fraternal and maternal … but ask anyone—even the resounding haters of today—who kept us all together … who do you remember the most … it will always be Grandma (Weldon(Nina), Madelyn (Mom), George (Pop)). I never had a chance to meet Nina … but talk to anyone from my father’s side and she is spoken of as if she could walk through the door any minute and set time right. In my heart, my mother’s mother always remains and whenever I build or fix something, I know my Pop is behind that instinctive desire to fix, help and repair anything. Actually, a direct quote from my grandfather’s funeral: ‘George was not a lazy man.’
None of them were, to be honest. They all worked very hard. Not just the labor for financial gains. I’m talking slave labor to keep the family united. Drama? Of course they had it … but what they had then that we don’t have now was the ability to manage the drama. Case in point, I’m only finding out now that an uncle (by marriage) slept with an aunt (by blood). That uncle has been dead going on … gosh, 8-10 years or so and I believe that offense had to happen back before I was born. I saw pictures of my aunt back then … if she wasn’t family, I’d do her! She was damn well Beyoncé back then. (Damn MSWord corrected her name. How do you get a name like Beyoncé in MSWord spell check. I want MY name in spell check. Oops! It actually is … Imma star!)
Moving on, I can reveal pounds of family strife and drama that would boggle the mind. Women getting pregnant to keep men—cold stealing men and women from one another. Prison rap sheets. Drug abuse. Cases of HIV, murders, gang warlording (and I mean running things. We’re talking ownership of full counties and city blocks), adultery, so on and so on. Anywhere between 1901 and the 1960’s … it all happened, so by no means am I saying we’ve got full stock in acting the fool.
What I’m saying is through it all, my aunt never left my uncle. Well, maybe there were separations, a lot of yelling, mistrust and hate … but she apparently rode it out. He passed away first. My aunt, his wife, passed about a year ago. She is dearly missed.
If they divorced and lived separate lives, I would never have known my cousins. I grew up with the greatest collection of cousins a man could ever have. I love them all though we’ve all scattered to the four winds. If it weren’t for the endurance of that era of people … of minds … who learned from the start to keep all that dirt in check the best you can … I wouldn’t have known anyone. I would have been a child victim of ‘you can’t speak to so-n-so and if he or she calls, don’t answer the phone.’
Now, because some of these same cousins are doing dirty, do I have the right to stop my children from knowing who they are? Meeting them? Associating with them? It’s my call … and it depends on the offense. But for goodness sake, I’m taking a page from my grandparents and my kids don’t have to know a dang gone thing. I have a family member in jail. Am I telling my kids? It’s none of their business. Young minds don’t have to be assaulted to those facts. Maybe when they get older and mature ... when I can trust them to not run off to grade school and brag that so-n-so is in a federal prison … I’ll fill them in.
Or maybe I won’t at all. Things went down at that memorial for my Aunt Katherine that no child needed to see or hear … and yes, there were children there. The offending parties that had so much hate in their heart just didn’t care if anyone heard what they said. That wasn’t a memorial for a loved aunt … this was a laundry … and she wanted to come clean and air her stuff out. As any public laundry, if you’re there to hear it … so be it.
How would have that even been handled by the long gone leaders of my family? Well, let’s reverse time. First, there would have been a proper funeral. Anyone who objected would have been shot down without a discussion. In fact, let’s start with Nina (my father’s mother). From my understanding of her, the topic of quickly burying one of her daughters would never have been a topic of discussion. She would have given time for the family to gather and that would have been the end of it. Any dissidents would probably never have come to town rather than challenge her.
Next, my Mom. Provided she even knew my father’s side of the family … and I suspect she did. There is drama involved in that too, I hear. But anyway, if things like that broke out at the funeral … people getting loud and yelling at each other, she would have ushered me and all the other children out of the service immediately … or better yet, she would have caught wind of who was coming and, knowing that there would be explosions, would have kept me home.
My grandfather … he would have taken the offending parties out of the service by the scruff of their neck … kitten style … and bounced them from the memorial … if he didn’t stop them at the door before it all began.
We’re talking about an era that knew how to contain that need to let the world know what was on their minds. There were legions of Hollywood actors and actresses: gay as gay as can be … and we’re only finding out after they died. Rock Hudson floored me. People on drugs, cheating, etc, etc. Hollywood had full damage control departments to manage the image of their stars.
Our families back then had internal damage control morals to manage the image of their family.
We don’t have that anymore.
We have YouTube … and it’s quite alright to let upend our family today by creating a second offensive move on the collective image. The first offense, naturally, is whatever the offending family member did. The second one is how we react to it … or not react to it.
So then another death occurs in the family … and everyone gathers … and no one knows one another … and then someone talks having a family reunion … and it never happens … and someone else dies … then it repeats.
Unfortunately, I can safely say with complete honesty, I finally found out how that circle can be broken. You see, we all talk about having a reunion after someone we loved passes attached to that golden era. 30-40 years from now, with my aunts and uncles all gone … and when my era starts to fade off, a bunch of strangers who nobody knew will attend a funeral of someone they heard about but never met because they were kept from one another.
No need to ask for a family reunion because they’re all a bunch of strangers … even if they have the same last name.
Sadly, we have no patriarchs anymore. Not on my mother’s side. Not even my mother, to be honest. She’ll be the first to tell you she doesn’t want to deal with family. That said, she and I haven’t spoken going on a year now.
On my father’s side, I think it’s my Aunt Patty. She demanded the memorial service and made it happen. She, too, welcomed me into the family … at the worst time of my life (divorce) … and expressed her love for me. Aunt Patty is a reminder of a simple phrase: Get your shit together and come be with your family. No extras … no excuses … no crying about who did what to who. Just come be with your family. No questions asked … no comments needed.
That is a very spiritual … metaphysical ideal I have to agree with. No matter how much you may disagree with your family, it often pays to commune with each other. At the very least, for the sake of your children to know the players in the game; by name and face, if not by full biography. Not yet anyway. There is just something special when your family all gathers in one spot. It touches you regardless of how much you may hate your sister, your brother, your uncle, your aunt, your cousin, etc. it may touch you negatively, positively or with indifference … but it touches you. There has to be points in there for something of that magnitude to trigger an emotional response.
In closing, I need to tell you that the family book I attempted to write for both families was cancelled. Basically, it was going to be thick book given to each family member with a page or two written about each of them in chronological order from the great-great grandparents on down. The point was to give my children a strong sense of history and introduce them to the people who made a difference in my life before they passed away … and those who are still around that they may not have a chance to meet … plus their children. I spent money and time requesting people to contribute to the online family tree at Ancestry.com and simply asked people if I can talk to them or if they can send a few words about themselves. The book was going to be free … one copy per household … with amendments annually for new family members born, married, passings, etc. In my mind, it was going to be the ultimate reason why we are so great creatively … plus a healthy understanding of where certain traits came from. I told everyone this was not a book about the negative impacts … just the names of who people are, and how they are connected … the positive highlights and acknowledgements. Ultimately, my family … both sides, is tremendously gifted.
But you wouldn’t know it because they don’t want to everyone else to know who they are. 97% of my family … both sides … gave me a hard time with the book. All I got was I don’t want my name associated with so-n-so (regardless if I have to explain you were born by so-n-so), I don’t want anybody to know this or that, you don’t have the right to use my son/daughters name, I won’t pay for this or that, complaint, complaint and complaint.
It got so frustrating I gave up the entire idea. Yeah… I said it … fuck ‘em. It was going to be a free gift and it got thrown in my face.
As I type this, Nina, Mom and Pop are looking over me and offering mixed emotions on my final answer to the family question.
That’s a book that needs to be written. Kind of like a personal family bible. Greater men than I have been persecuted to get the bible through time. Who am I to get discouraged by a bunch of idiots that can’t get their shit together … and be a family?
I gave my mother a call today …
We spoke for a little while. She’s doing fine.
… and I feel better.