The gravity of family

The gravity of family

All my adult life, I have valued my chosen relationships over the ones I was born into.

Doug Muder
hand holding baby photo with photo album in the background
© LisaValder/istockphoto


I’m not sure what surprised me more: that my cousin Jackie came to my father’s funeral or that I still recognized her after all these years.

My extended family (on either side) has never been particularly close-knit. I have pleasant childhood memories of playing cards with my cousins around the dining room table after Christmas dinner had been cleared away, and no dramatic issue, no huge falling-out, ever blew us apart. But the aunts and uncles considered a once-a-year gathering sufficient, and as my generation left for college and then found jobs in distant states, even that stopped happening. Eventually my parents began wintering in Florida, so my trips back to Illinois became sporadic summer events that I didn’t coordinate with anybody besides Mom and Dad.

I never developed a holiday card-writing practice, so I didn’t have to decide whether my cousins made the list or not. Occasionally Mom would report to me that someone had moved or gotten a new job or had a baby. But I had no plans to visit the new homes or meet the new children, so the details didn’t stick in my head.

Eventually Dad’s generation—his three older sisters and their husbands—started dying. I was a thousand miles away and I hadn’t seen them in years, so I was relieved when Mom and Dad didn’t insist I go back for the funerals. When Mom died a year and a half ago, I was not surprised or disappointed that the out-of-town cousins didn’t show up. Why would they?

Then it was Dad’s turn. He was 90, he had suffered under a variety of ailments for several years, and, without Mom, his attachment to the world of the living had become strained and brittle. So it was neither unexpected nor tragic when his doctor called to say he might not live much longer. My sister Becky and I converged from our orthogonal directions and camped out in the now-vacant family house for his final weeks. Not since her last summer break in college had we spent that much time together.

Sometimes Dad knew we were there and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he slept uneasily. Sometimes he was upset but couldn’t tell us why. Sometimes he hallucinated dangers we couldn’t see and couldn’t be comforted by any reassurance we could offer. One evening I had to wrestle to keep him in bed until the nurses could bring sedation. Afraid, incoherent, and adrenaline-powered, he was still amazingly strong.

I knew I would be sad when he died, but I began to hope for it all the same. For his sake? For mine? It was hard to say.

Then he was gone, and there were things to arrange. Becky’s sons were like I had been at that age: far away, busy, and not quite grasping the uniqueness of the situation. All the same, they found time and made the trip. I was glad to see them and wondered when I would see them again.

My hometown is small enough that deaths are announced on the radio, so we called the local cousins right away, before they could hear the news from someone else. Unlike me, they had phone numbers for the distant cousins and promised to call them. It was, I recognized, the proper thing to do, but I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

And then, at the visitation in the funeral home, in walked a 60-something woman who was somehow unmistakably the teen-ager who had given me my first piano lesson, Jackie. Another distant cousin, Raymond (who had stayed in town longer, so I at least had seen him in middle-age), also drove in with his wife.

The cousins stayed for dinner that night, the first time so many of us had gathered in maybe thirty years. After the funeral the next morning, we all ate lunch together. Surprisingly, the conversation never seemed stilted or fizzled into silence. I think, after all this time, we actually liked each other. Phone numbers and email addresses were exchanged, to be used . . . when, exactly?

At the end, in the parking lot, we took a picture. I thought of all the pictures Becky and I had gone through in the last several days. (Every room in the old house seemed to have a drawer of disorganized photos in it somewhere.) I imagined my nephews—or Jackie’s kids, whose names I still couldn’t remember—gathering in the 2040s and asking the same question Becky and I had asked each other so many times: “Who were these people?”

Jackie and Raymond never said exactly why they came. Maybe it was something special about Dad. (I loved him, so it’s hard for me to be objective about other people’s feelings.) Or maybe it was that he was the last: Our family doesn’t have an older generation any more.

Or maybe they came to acknowledge something more subtle: We are the older generation now.

All my life, I had seen the family as somebody else’s responsibility. News would filter up to the old folks, get passed around, and (if it was important enough) find its way down to me. It was up to the old folks to call us together for Christmas or for any other reason.

Now we’re the old folks.

As Becky and I go through the house, preparing for an eventual sale, decisions have to be made: What is a memento, what belongs in an antique shop, and what is just old junk? (My first typewriter, cheap and flimsy even when new, could fit in any of those categories.) As I consider, I feel the weight of future generations, who will have no chance to appeal our decisions. Any memento we get rid of is gone forever. Any junk we hang onto, someone else will have to examine and throw away later (perhaps while guiltily wondering why they can’t appreciate its value).

Those are the kinds of decisions old folks have always made. Now we have to make them.

The objects and the photographs are just proxies for the stories. (The ancient dresser and rocking chair in the basement. Whose were they? How did they come to us?) All our lives, Mom and Dad told us stories about themselves, their siblings, their parents and grandparents, and relatives too far back for them to have met. (Some ancestor retreated from Moscow with Napoleon. Another had to sneak out of Germany hidden in a manure wagon.) The details, to me at least, are sketchy, as if I stand at the end of a centuries-long game of telephone.

Or maybe I should picture myself in the middle of a game that stretches into the indefinite future. By default, those stories belong to me now, and my sister, and my cousins—if we can remember them. Which ones are mementos, and which are just old junk? Which ones will we tell? Again, future generations cannot appeal our decisions. The oral culture that we forget or fail to mention will be gone forever.

I am not used to thinking like this. All my adult life, I have valued my chosen relationships over the ones I was born into. I have moved to places where I saw a future, even if I had no past there. When I realized (in my 30s) that I needed a religious community, I sought out one that could take me as I was; I never considered re-adjusting myself to the denomination that raised me. Where I had come from has seemed almost accidental; what mattered was where I had decided to go.

I live surrounded by friends, not family. They are the ones who are with me when someone has to be, the ones I call in the middle of the night when something has gone horribly wrong. Their children, not my sister’s or my cousins’, are the ones I have watched grow up.

I can’t say I regret those decisions, but as I try on my new elderhood, I see how much work needs to be done on my network of chosen relationships before it can truly rival or replace the old-fashioned extended family.

After decades, my cousins re-gathered. Whether we will ultimately take advantage of it or not, we have a new opportunity to make something of our family ties. But my network of friends has no similar gravity, no star around which the rest of us orbit, no central figure who can call us to assemble, or whose funeral will bring us back together and make us consider whether we need or want to begin again.

Friends who drift away tend to keep drifting. It’s no one’s responsibility to inform us about each other’s jobs, houses, or kids. Or even deaths. How many of the people whose names still haunt my address list are actually dead? Why would anyone have told me?

Such thoughts give me a primitive urge to swear binding oaths, to prick my finger in a sacred hall and drip blood onto parchment. But even if my friends did not decide I had gone crazy, what would we swear to do? What obligations would we take on? What holidays and rituals and rites of passage would remind us to fulfill them?

Modern life, with all its mobility and options, is full of casual relationships that may or may not deepen over time, and may or may not shallow out just as unpredictably. Rarely are we prompted to take a step back and ask what we are doing in these relationships. Are we just pleasantly hanging around? Or have our lives joined in some more meaningful way?

We retain, for couples, an institution of marriage, a moment when tokens are exchanged as symbols of solemn promises. But our other chosen relationships have no institutional support unless we build them that way, unless they grow like ivy around some solid central structure, like a school or a church, and unless we invest that institution with a gravity that will always pull us back, eventually.

Have I done that? As I return home and come back to the church I have attended these last 17 years, I will be looking at it through new eyes. Is there gravity here? For me? For the friends I count on seeing? If some long, comet-like orbit should pull one or the other of us away, will we always cycle back? What can we do now to make sure that we will?

After decades, Jackie showed up, and I recognized her. Family has gravity. Marriage has gravity. If any of my other relationships are going to have gravity, I’m going to have to figure out how to build it in.