Skyline of downtown Houston from Sabine Park, Houston, Texas, July 15, 2010. (Jujutacular via Wikipedia). Permission granted via GNU Free Documentation License.
My Mom and my Uncle Sam are in Houston, Texas/Bradley, Arkansas this week, burying their father and my grandfather, who died ten days ago, just three weeks after his 97th birthday. Given what they’ve told me so far, it seems like they’ve been treated as outsiders by my extended family of uncles, aunts, grand uncles and aunts, and cousins that I barely know or whom I’ve never met. They’ve learned some embarrassing stuff as well, details that I will not go into here. I had been conflicted about going versus not going, especially given that I’d only met my grandfather once, in June 2001, and that wasn’t a pleasant visit, at least environmentally speaking. After the past few days, I’m definitely glad I didn’t go.
My Mom and my Uncle Sam Gill, Jr., Mount Vernon, NY, November 23, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).
I do feel bad for my Mom and Uncle Sam, though. And not just the natural empathy of feeling for your kin when their father passes away either. I feel for them because they are part of a family dynamic that has gone on for nearly a half-century without their input and with a limited bit of shunning as well. Some of this may well be deliberate, but most of this is natural, as time and distance has meant limited understanding and inclusion between my uncles and aunts with the New York Gills since the time of my birth in 1969. But some of this is about embarrassment, too. My Mom and my Uncle Sam’s lives haven’t exactly been a bowl of pitted cherries with whipped cream, either.
This is a topic that I’ve known all too well with my own family over the past three decades. One example would be the next to last day of 1988, the first year in which I rediscovered myself as someone other than an emotionally wounded twelve-year-old. It was a day of both eye-opening lies and hidden truths, a moment of unexpected boldness and moments of seeing familiar faces and places with different eyes.
It was the day my friend and former high school classmate Laurell decided to pick me up from 616 to spend time with her, as well as her friend Nicole, our former eighth-grade Algebra teacher Jeanne Longerano, and eventually, our mutual acquaintances JD and Josh. It was a day I was forced to code switch, to traverse my 616 world, my former Humanities world, and maintain my new conception of myself at the same time. It wasn’t exactly my Miles Davis moment:
What I discuss in different parts of Boy @ The Window, but not in this particular scene, was the exact nature of “too disgusting” at 616. Let’s see. Blotches of gray and black stains on a salmon-colored area rug around a 19-inch television set in the living room. On top of the rug was my then stepfather Maurice who was laid out in nothing but his size-54 underwear. This meant that most of his 400-plus pound fatty bulk was exposed for anyone to see. A cobble of broken down sofas, busted chairs, and a
Deepwater Horizon oil spill aerial, Gulf of Mexico, May 6, 2010 (same color as area rug with stains). (Reuters/Daniel Beltra via Flickr, http://motherjones.com).
kitchen table with hanger wire connecting each of its three remaining legs to the tabletop. Kitchen, hallway, and bathroom walls stained with grape jelly, crayons, and even feces. Dust balls the size of Matchbox cars in the hallway, lined up as if in rush-hour traffic. And the never-ending smell of cigarette smoke, overused cooking oil, and farts from eight human beings between the ages of four and forty-one. Seriously, what would anyone else have done under the circumstances, especially now that I was a fully awake college-aged student? I wasn’t acting just out of embarrassment or just to protect my Mom from embarrassment. I was acting to protect Laurell as well.
Contrast 616 with what happened next on December 30, 1988, between The Price is Right’s first Showcase Showdown and the end of The Bold and the Beautiful on CBS (roughly, between 11:25 am and 2 pm):
Afterward, we went down the street to the nearest pizza shop, and hung out until midafternoon, telling each other what we thought would be the best thing to say. Even me. I didn’t talk about homelessness, or a semester without money for food, or living in a deathtrap in the South Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Laurell did give me a heartfelt hug after dropping me off at 616, still puzzled about why I wouldn’t let her and Nicole visit with my family. Hopefully, after years as a high school math teacher, she understands better now.
Biohazard symbol (orange), May 29, 2009. (Nandhp via Wikipedia). In public domain.
Even though my Mom and Uncle Sam are obviously just as much Gill as the rest of my extended family in Texas, Arkansas (and Washington State, Louisiana, and elsewhere), they’re not part of the everyday that my other uncles, aunts, grand aunts and uncles, and cousins have had with each other for decades. So the extended Gills cannot see my Mom and my uncle and their struggles the same way they see their own. Nor can my extended Gills see those things that may be embarrassing to my Mom and my uncle the same way either. It makes for a bewildering family dynamic. And this in many ways explains well why so many families have a hard time being families, in the closeness (and closest) meaning of the word.
Dysfunction is so much a part of families these days. but even in dysfunction, you can learn truths about yourself, especially in moments of life, death, and in my case, rebirth.