Several Christmases ago, I visited my extended family in western Pennsylvania. The family is quite close, and there are times when this can be truly comforting. And then there are other times when their world seems entirely suffocating, which happened during this visit over a decade ago.
While making the rounds with my cousins, I brought my small son to the ramshackle farmhouse belonging to an aunt and uncle. My uncle, whom I’ll call Uncle Gus to maintain his privacy, offered the adults a glass of his home-made wine. Actually, I think he also offered wine to a couple of the children, but my cousins and I laughed that off and quickly sent our boys to another room to play with Gus’s guns (all dismantled, by the way, to varying degrees of recognizability).
Gus brought out plastic cups of his home-brewed elixir while from the doorway out of Gus’s view, my cousin’s husband, whom I’ll call Josh, soundlessly gestured to the quality of the drink we were about to try.
He held his nose, grimaced, and shook his head no, no, no, no.
I sipped tentatively. Perhaps it would have tasted good if we’d mixed it with olive oil, salt, and pepper and poured it over some arugula.
Then I turned around and saw where the wine was coming from. It was in a large jug, the kind used for water coolers. There was no lid to the jug, only a turkey baster protruding from the top. Growing along the inside was a greenish-black substance, which I don’t think was enhancing the wine’s flavor. Gus used the large plastic bulb of the baster to suck up the yellow liquid and squirt it into cups.
He brought more grog to his two sons-in-law, saying “Drink up!”
We all thanked him, then Josh said he was going to take us on a tour of Gus’s latest hunting trophies. The three of us walked into another room.
“Do you think it’s safe to drink this stuff,” I asked Josh. He’s an engineer that works for the state, monitoring the water supply. I figured he knew what was within the limits of acceptability.
“I’m not sure,” he answered. “It doesn’t seem to have killed Gus yet, but it could be slow acting.”
While I love my relations, it’s become impossible to deny that I don’t relate to them. Growing up, I felt like I was one of those genetic anomalies you’ll sometimes see in nature, like a six-toed rabbit or an albino squirrel or a four-eyed frog.
That never felt good, so I left home to find out where I really belonged. This may sound insensitive or petulant. I can’t help but be the center of my own universe, so my ego responds. In fact, to be really truthful, I sometimes regard my family of origin as though they were the two-headed salamanders or the algae that grows without sunlight. Or whatever that stuff was growing in the wine jug.
After some debate, we poured out our cups into a sickly-looking plant in the corner, hoping that we wouldn’t be responsible for its demise, but then philosophizing that we may have been putting it out of its misery.
We wandered back into the living room, and sat on the lopsided sofa for a while. My cousin “Colleen” was presenting her dad a blood pressure cuff—a well-intended, and therefore fruitless, gesture.
The excitement of watching each member of my family take their blood pressure got to be too much, so I ventured outside with my son to circuit the property, walking around the various rusted carcasses of tractors and combines. We explored a vast two-story shed full of mysterious pieces of metal. So many machines had been unrigged in that building, one couldn’t help but arrive at a certitude that there was no hope of anything being assembled in a functioning sort of way ever again. Nevertheless, there was a beauty to these rounded and squared objects that glinted in the dusty air. They were exquisite in their exotic uselessness. If one were to arrange them into a gallery exhibit, the show would be titled “The Art of Neglect.”
There’s a wider scope to what’s depressing about these visits, besides my defensive judgments of my relatives. People in this part of the country used to know how to maintain those objects. It used to be possible to thrive on that piece of land, when the soil and water were cleaner and people’s bodies were fed better stuff. The communities weren’t as fragmented and neighbors weren’t as bedraggled, so friendships with them didn’t look like liabilities. There are only so many toothless neighbors reeking of beer one can meet without feeling ill at ease.
My boy and I were getting cold and decided to bypass the larger barn. The barn housed some horses with matted manes, as well as one blind old pig, but most of the stalls and the mangers were used to store more esoteric pieces of rust and rubber. Truthfully, I wanted to keep my boy out of there. Better to go inside and see if we could scare up some tea.
Rounding the back of the house, we discovered a colt walking between the parked cars, awkward and out of place. The gate that surrounded the barn didn’t look open, so our best guess was that the young horse had jumped the fence.
It was prancing back and forth uneasily, seeming not to know what to do next. We went into the house to tell my aunt Linda one of her colts was loose in the driveway. Though I don’t know why I was surprised, a chorus of cousins chimed in with my aunt.
“That can’t be. You just didn’t see the fence.”
The we don’t believe you refrain is a greatest hit in my family.
I replied, “Yes, I saw the fence. It was behind the horse, not in front of it. I can usually spot those kinds of things right off.”
Still, no one could accept what I was saying. Josh and Eli, husbands to my twin cousins, being only married into the family, allowed for a remote chance that if my son was agreeing with my testimony, perhaps I didn’t imagine it. After all, there was also a male there, saying the same thing as me—even if he was only four years old.
They put on their coats to see for themselves. The rest of the clan stood around talking about the function of fences, and how they used such things to keep horses inside a defined parameter, in case I didn’t understand.
Last spring, we were watching some silly alien movie and my now-teenage son, the wag, wise-cracked, “Where did they find so many green actors with four arms to be in this movie?” And my cousin quite un-ironically attempted to explain the advent of CGI.
This is a family trait I’ve found particularly maddening. My own vanity notwithstanding, I’ve stood out to many in the outside world as somewhat gifted, and yet my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins always treated me like a raving idiot—which is their de facto opinion of everyone in the world. They don’t have any particular means of substantiating this attitude and will deny that they even act that way. And yet, when a person speaks, their first impulse is to dismiss.
I’ve never been one for lying to or tricking anyone. It doesn’t appeal to me. On occasion, however, I’ve made the mistake of making observations out loud, observations that others preferred to ignore: things like, “Grandpa sure does yell a lot,” and “Why’s that lady sitting on Uncle Gus’s lap?” These things weren’t to be talked about, but I was young and didn’t know better.
You see, my family long ago adopted a policy of rejecting wholesale anyone’s ability to observe the world around them accurately. It was clearly a defensive strategy.
I recall a time in the sixth grade, when I fell down the steps outside my Aunt Linda’s house. I was in agony, unable to move my left hand without screaming. No one believed I was in pain.
“You just want attention,” my cousins said.
Yes. I wanted attention because my wrist was broken.
“If it was broken, it would swell up,” my mother said.
There was nothing to do but sit there and watch syndicated re-runs of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley while the rest of the family ate supper. Five hours elapsed and I still held my throbbing arm in my good hand, the injured hand limp and white.
“Oh, if you’re not going to let up, I’ll take you to the emergency room. X-Rays are expensive, you know.” This, from my mother, who was a nurse at the hospital. We had pretty decent insurance that we never used.
We went to the hospital, where my mother cared for people when she was being paid to. After my arm was x-rayed, the doctors wrapped my broken wrist in a plaster cast. Thank god the hospital wasn’t staffed with more relatives of mine.
When we got back to Linda’s house, my cousin Colleen greeted me with, “It was just a bruise, wasn’t it? You big baby.”
I waved the cast triumphantly in her face. For six weeks, I had a chalky white banner of vindication. But once the cast came off, the lesson was lost.
For instance, the aforementioned holiday visit.
Josh and Eli came back into the house, said, “The colt is loose, alright,” and everyone sprang into action (except Uncle Gus, who once he’s stripped down to his underwear, can’t be removed from the Barcalounger unless there’s a promise of whiskey). In minutes, there were eight adults and four children trying to round up the incorrigible colt.
I would have expected the filly to come to Linda, since she belonged to her, but every time Linda took a step toward the animal, it reared and ran the opposite direction.
The colt, like all the rest of the horses, had dried-on mud across her flanks and big knots in her mane. She stamped her feet and blew sounds of distress through her nose. As Josh and Eli tried to approach her, she ran off to the far side of the yard, near the barn, but away from the fence gate.
The other horses in the barn whinnied out an anxious reply to the colt’s calls for help. I had moved away from my son because a couple of times the horse had come charging at me, and I didn’t want my child to be trampled. One cousin kept him back a safe distance while the rest of the adults formed a wide circle around the nameless horse. It seemed that when the colt didn’t know where to go, she would run to me. I wasn’t sure if I was just imagining it, due to a bias of sympathy for the both of us. But then, even a cousin of mine observed that the colt kept coming to me, and soon it was agreed that I should try to lead her to the gate.
I grabbed a carrot, held out my arm, and said gently, “Come here, girl. This way.” The horse followed.
I stepped in front of the open gate. The horse wouldn’t go in. I opened the gate wider, yet she continued to pace around me. Finally, it dawned on me to walk through, myself. As soon as I did, the horse entered the field. She realized she was back in familiar territory and galloped straight into the barn. Josh and Eli set to work making sure that the gate was securely fastened.
My son and I spent this most recent holiday up in Syracuse, with my partner and his oldest, closest friends. It was a lovely time, with good food, singing, and all the things I associate with Christmas. The people were warm and made me feel welcome. I’m very grateful for being part of their celebration. Nevertheless, in the days since then, I can’t escape thinking about my own family, even with this holiday spent elsewhere, away from home and kin.
Have you ever eaten something delicious and been reminded of all the mediocre or unpalatable versions you’ve had before it? Or compared your current job to a much worse job you had before? This line of thinking can be applied to just about any experience. I think it’s one of the mechanisms we use to “count our blessings.”
My life is blessed. But there’s a pain I feel when I think about home, like a sore spot where there’s a splinter trapped below the skin. When I was a girl I felt very much like that colt, eager to jump the fence. But where to go? Like the colt, I wouldn’t have gone too far hitchhiking down that little country road, and I was too young to get a job. I had to wait until I was older, stronger. But it still feels like a betrayal that I led the colt back to her family, back to the place where she was hemmed in by all the comfort and deprivation she had ever known. To ease my misgivings, I remind myself that she actually does love her parents and aunts and uncles and cousins. No matter how far she yearns to run, it’s not that simple a trick to pull off, getting away. The desire for freedom inevitably contracts into something smaller.
The colt just wanted to see what the driveway was like. She’s not ready to completely cut out. She just wishes the wine was decent. It’s not as though the world is a friendly place for lone filly colts, either. It’s not an easy place for anyone of rural origins. I tell myself it’s better for her to be in the barn with the rest of her fold.
Or maybe I let us both down. I wonder if I ought to be back home, taking better care of the horses. After a few days back there, I always manage to leave and tend to my own hide. If I were to speak out again the way I used to, I’d say “Something has seeped into our rural spaces, and maybe everywhere, that’s subtle and poisonous. This pathogen could be coming through the televisions and the shopping malls. It’s mesmerizing. We forget what matters. I feel disconnected from you, which is very similar to being disconnected from the natural world that sustains us.” But I’ve never come out and said that to them. In that respect, when the moment of truth shows up to test how I handle myself, I turn out to be no more reliable than my relatives think I am.