So I’ve been in California for the past few days picking up rope.
I’ve seen some relatives I haven’t seen for many years and others I’d never met but who looked familiar to me like they might have been sitting at the children’s table at Thanksgiving dinner for the past ten years. “You look like a hundred people I know,” I said to the 13-year old son of one of my nephews. His short hair reminded me of my brother’s 50’s butch haircut, clean and eager like the Boy Scout he was. This boy was smiling as if he had been waiting for me.
He wasn’t. He was waiting for the grandmother he has never met. But I brought clues about her, random dots he could start to connect. His grandmother, my sister, was a mystery to him. So he looked to me for hints about her but he didn’t press when I explained I hadn’t seen her in many years. ‘I can’t tell you why she’s not here,’ I wanted to say but he never asked that question. I’ve learned with children not to answer questions that aren’t asked.
So because I spent time with relatives I hadn’t seen in years and with their children whom I’d never met, and because the event which spurred me to do this was another nephew’s funeral, it made me think hard about family estrangement and its intended and unintended consequences.
One thought I had is that the magic of estrangement is that the estranged person is always oddly present without having to travel or take up a seat. And I think that is the intention although most estranged people would deny it. They want to cast a lifetime curse of puzzlement and self-doubt on their family members. They want to be the distant enigma, the planet found after Pluto, hardest to see but orbiting the sun nonetheless. They enjoy this image in their minds, hoping secretly that the people who were shunned gather to console each other and wonder why. And they get what they want, but because they’re not there to witness it, the joy is muted.
Another thought is that shunned people, though damaged by having been estranged, figure out how to mostly close the original wound of having been left. Notice I say mostly. The bleeding stops and a scar eventually forms but there’s always a tiny area that stays inflamed, a little swollen, it’s the place absentmindedly touched several times a day, just to remember that, however good life may seem, it’s never going to be entirely right. It’s like a small sliver of pencil lead I had in the heel of my hand all through grade school. It stopped hurting but I could always see it there, shadowy gray under my skin.
Estrangement is the nuclear option in family relationships. It is the most powerful weapon, the most feared. ‘I sentence you to my absence forever.’ It is the last word and an unanswerable one. There is no arguing with being shunned. Once someone pulls the plug, they take the outlet with them, the light and all the power. However, eventually, death trumps estrangement. Unless one believes ardently in an afterlife where all the estranged can meet up in one giant reconciliation coffee shop, death ends the contest. There are no tender spots left, no pencil lead under the skin, the old wounds are buried, cremated, gone.
Some, just a tiny bit, is left to the next generation as their inheritance.
The Daily Post: Connected