On Me and My Family, Part Two

But what happens when this new-found freedom hits the real world? Earlier in the week Natalie asked me what we were doing for Easter. Nothing, I answered. For years I went to my mother’s, but those years are gone and if I’ve replaced them with something else, I don’t remember what it is. Natalie said last year we went to my brother’s. Well, we haven’t been invited, I told her. Aunt M is mad at me so I doubt she will and I don’t want to go, anyway. But I do, she insisted. I want to see Grandma. 

So she called my brother who told her he’d call her back. Instead he called me. Natalie called, he said. I know, I answered. M is really upset, he continued. I can try and smooth things over. This is not about me, I interrupted. This is about Natalie. She wants to see her cousins. She hasn’t much family, her brother is dead. I am not looking to come on Sunday. She is. She’s not the one M is angry with. I’m sure M wouldn’t mind. But whatever it is, you need to call Natalie about it, not me. And so he called M because traditions die hard and the way my mother ruled is the way M does. R might pay for the house, but when it comes to his side of the family, M decides who passes through its doors. 

I am proud of Natalie. I think it took balls for her to make that call. If she wants to be an active part of that family, she will have to make that happen. R called her and confirmed she could come. I’m going, mom, she announced. And maybe it’s good you’re not there because I hide behind you when you are. She’s right. Seeing family once or a twice year does not a relationship make and in the past, if she was there and found conversation lacking, I was there to turn to. So let her go, let her see, let her decide for herself what she wants.

Me standing apart from my family as opposed to merely hiding from them is new. But here it is Easter, and here I am alone. Easter itself never meant anything to me, other than another day the family gets together.  And I admit to a certain shakiness earlier. Everyone is with family, they don’t want me. I am a ghost, sitting here alone, me and my cat and my books and my words and the latest K Revenge Drama. WTF?

No. Not WTF. Reality, instead. “Everyone” is a meaningless story I tell myself. So is “they.” In this case, “they” consists of M. That is a fact – M does not want me there. Not “everyone,” just M. So what? And what of the “there” where she doesn’t want me? Let me go back to one of the last times I visited “there,” Thanksgiving, when things between us were about as normal as possible, when I was showing up but doing a damn good job of hiding. Along with M and R were my three nieces and nephew, some with their significant others. There were other of M’s family members as well, a couple of friends, maybe 30 people in all. The tables were laid end to end to accommodate us and each place setting had a name tag. My brother sat at the head with M next to him. Around them on either side were these various family members, were their friends. At the far end, next to my mother, was where I was seated. Around me were M’s brother who no one gets along with, his kid and a couple 10-year-olds. 

I am the afterthought. It has been my complaint with R and M for as long as I can remember. When Philip died, I finally understood that all the years of anger I had with them was because I wanted them to be who they weren’t. It is not about right or wrong. I could tell stories, you would probably agree what they did wasn’t “right.” Doesn’t matter. They are who they are and it’s up to me to accept them. After Philip died, I did, for a long time. But accepting them was not revealing myself to them and it worked until it didn’t. 

Maybe I was being too sensitive that Thanksgiving. Maybe I didn’t have to take it personally. But putting me and my mother at a place at a table so long that we were actually in a different room when I haven’t a thing to say to her, along with M’s brother and a couple of restless 10-year-olds was a deliberate choice and I was not interpreting it kindly. I wanted to be among my nieces and nephew, to be part of the laughing and camaraderie that was too far up the table for me take part in. Later, during dessert, people were moving around, shiftng to couches, standing apart. I took the opportunity to sit further up the table then, hoping to find some conversation before I left. Which I did. It went something like this:

R’s twenty-something nephew: This war in Urkraine. WTF? We’re spending billions. And for what?

R: It’s a proxy war, you know. That’s all it is. An excuse to fight.

A glance at my phone showed 6:10pm. A fine time to leave, I thought. So I did.

Shakiness? Yes, I will shake, all right. My ass around the living room in hallelujah that I don’t have to go through that again. I am here. I am home. My cat and my books and my words and my K Revenge Drama are looking pretty damn good right now. My life, my choice. And since this is all new to me, well – let come what may.

Happy Easter if it’s called for, may the day find you well if not.

© 2023 Denise Smyth


On Family and Me, Part One

I have been careful not to get political on this blog. I became aware of that when something I was writing about was getting near the topic and I chose to avoid it. This is not about politics, I thought. I do not want to alienate anyone. I started this blog to deal with Philip’s death. Eleven years later I am still dealing with it, as I will always be. But this caution about politics, given what is happening? I say fuck it.

Yesterday I woke not only to find that Tennessee, founding state of the Ku Klux Klan, made good on their promise to expel several house members because they joined a protest against gun violence, but of the three reps who were facing expulsion, the two who were expelled were black. Yes, that’s correct. The white member was not expelled. I suppose I should thank the idiots who took this action as they made martyrs of these two young representatives, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, as well as given them national attention. Another stunning example of the way Republicans want to rule. Disagree with them and you’re out. Two elected officials who took part in a protest against gun violence were expelled. Can I say it again?

And how about Tennessee State Rep William Lamberth, addressing students protesting gun violence and referring to a ban on AR-15s and other assault rifles by saying, “If there is a firearm out there that you’re comfortable being shot with, please, show me which one it is.”

This is but a sound bite of what this country has come to since electing that demented excuse of a human being called Trump to be president. And after all that has happened since that time and all that continues to happen, there still exists a core group of MAGA supporters who think he is the second coming. If Jesus had a grave he’d be spinning.

This is where it gets personal. I realize now that the reason I was careful to stay away from politics is my family. My (mostly) Trump supporting family. The three cousins I can think of who might not be I haven’t spoken to in a long time. I used to think that reasonable people can disagree, and that surely not all Trump supporters are crazy, but given what I see, Trump and sanity do not coexist. And my family’s support of Trump is the simplest way I can think of to explain my differences with them.

It is my mother’s side of the family that has consumed me. Makes sense, since my mother ruled. Every Sunday was spent at my maternal grandmother’s along with my six uncles, six aunts and various cousins. They were a loud and gregarious group, funny, outspoken. Working class. Traditional values, which by no means goes into the positive column. I have always felt an outsider, down to the fact that they were all Espositos and I was not, since my mom was the only female and therefore changed her surname when she married my father, who I grew up despising. 

I was different. A quiet kid, smart, uncomfortable in my skin, always reading, always unhappy, at a loss as to how to make a joke or have a witty comeback. Small boobs and a fat ass, so unlike my beautiful cousin Maria, born nearly two years to the day ahead of me, as close as sisters at times and yet the bane of my life as I could never be as funny, sexy or outrageous as she.

I came to politics late in life. It was not something discussed at the dinner table. That, coupled with the fact that since I started drinking when I was 11, my formative years were spent devising ways to get my next nickel bag of weed or bottle of Boone’s Farm Apple wine, not in forging a political identity. In fact, I was so far removed from anything political that I assumed my family were democrats since we lived in New York City. At some point in my 30s I became a Republican and that’s when I realized my family was, also. I don’t know if all politics is identity politics, but looking back that’s what it felt like for me. I was never a social conservative. I believed abortion should be legal, gay people should marry, and the fact that there needed to any kind of equal rights bills for minorities was a travesty because dear God, why don’t minorities have equal rights?

What I identified with was being fiscally conservative. I was, and probably still am – though hopefully less so – naive about it all. In my mind, I went to work and my husband went to work and so everyone should go to work and just take care of themselves. No nuance there, no humility, no compassion. Just a tough minded arrogance of how things ought to be.

Then Philip died. Politics, along with everything else, was just too painful.  All the arguing, the condemning, the self-righteousness – my son was dead and what else was there to give a fuck about? Four years later, the ever present shapeshifter grief changed into something that lived alongside me rather than consumed me. Still much on the outside of anything political, I was present enough to see the Republican Party had nominated Trump as their presidential candidate and like it or not, I had to pay attention. So I left the party and became a Democrat.

Trump, politics – this is one form of the discord with my family, not the content. My despair has always been that I don’t fit in because there is something wrong with me. I have made what I love about them matter and what I don’t a deficiency on my part. But the combination of working for my cousin for two and a half years plus my mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s has forced me to engage with my family in ways I have not for many years. I’d long moved away from them, saw them mostly at family events, did not reach out to keep in touch. That includes my brother who was swallowed up by his wife’s family the moment he got engaged. That is a story for another time. I mention it by way of saying that her family mirrors my mother’s side of the family so there was no solace to be found there.

I have written here about my mother’s Alzheimer’s and I have struggled to understand what it is I owe her. Early on I participated in getting her what care we could and made trips to see her in Brooklyn to get certain things done. My brother, R, and sister-in-law, M, have borne most of the burden. They live closer to her, M doesn’t work, they don’t carry the emotional garbage I do. M sees to it her bills are paid, her groceries are delivered. R stops there after work, is there when something goes wrong. I have stepped further back these last months. I have not been to see my mom for a long while. M has become increasingly outraged. I have wasted much of my emotional life hoping they wouldn’t see me the way I did – selfish, uncaring, a daughter who did not do her duty to her elderly mother. If I called my mom enough times, if I checked in with my brother enough times, maybe I could fend off the inevitable. And when I realized I couldn’t, I wrote to R and M to thank them for all they do and to acknowledge what was going on with me. Which really counted for nothing as far as they were concerned. I wasn’t, after all, offering a solution. So my brother accepts, my sister-in-law rages. And my mother feels like a weight around my neck.

Or so she has. Because last week, after yet another deadening 30 second conversation with her, I did something I haven’t done in a while. I wrote a letter to Philip. When he first died I used to sit and listen and write down what I heard him say. Call it what you will. Call it grief giving me access to a deeper wisdom we all carry within. I heard him talk to me and it was revelatory. So I wrote to him of my mother and listened for an answer and what happened next was an experience and not a thought. I felt what I can only call love and it broke the hypnosis of that particular spell. My mother’s constant anger is the voice in my head that takes the form of whoever, real or imagined, is angry at me. I always find someone who is angry with me and I always believe what I am hearing. I have tried talking myself out of it. It does not help. This time the voice was M. Seeing me through her eyes was not pretty. But seeing me through Philip’s eyes was glorious. And I say what I experienced was “love” or maybe it was acceptance but whatever the word I was released. My life, my choice. No shoulds, no have-tos. The voice? Now it’s mine. The family who matters? Natalie. 

Part two tomorrow

© 2023 Denise Smyth