Monday, July 20, 2009


For years, people have told their tales in hard time, stories of broken childhoods, of cold, unfeeling step parents, of crazy, dysfunctional families, and my reaction tended to be the same: Thank God my life wasn't like that. I came from a happy family, all rooted in solid Midwestern values, growing up together on a farm, no hint of discord, no sign of trouble.

Of course, my older brothers refused to talk to each other, and occasionally got into fistfights. The girls in the family overachieved as the boys proudly, perversely underachieved. Dad was emotionally distant, and my only solid memories are of him kicked back in his recliner, a dirty magazine in one hand, a can of Grain Belt in the other, utterly disconnected from whatever was going on in the foreground. At least Mom was always there, the center of things, so relentlessly cheerful, a tireless booster for all of her kids...yet somehow it wasn't surprising when she revealed, much later in life, that her role as child bearer combined with the terrible isolation of country life often resulted in thoughts of suicide.

Still, for me, an idyllic existence: All the toys and comic books I ever wanted, and the entire farm to call my playground. True, I was always tense and withdrawn in social situations, especially family get-togethers, and my hatred of school resulted in terrible grades, and by even my third year I was well on my way to being a total burn-out. And there were the headaches, and the overwhelming depression; by eighth grade I'd started seeing a therapist. Later, there'd be multiple suicide attempts, a decade spent in emotional oblivion and a resigned feeling that life was something to be endured, not celebrated.

But, um, Mom and Dad didn't get divorced, so, you know, everything was great!

Since my mother died, the remains of my family have largely scattered to the winds. I've lost touch with or am actively estranged from most of them, just as they have largely disconnected from each other. And the sad thing is, I don't care. I faintly recall making a rambling speech at Mom's funeral, the last time all of us--brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews--were all together, and I remember telling them all I felt the need to say I loved them. A nice sentiment, but was it true? Did I? Do I? Have I ever? How can you love people you barely know?

All this has been weighing heavily on me recently because...well, I'm not sure, actually. But I've noticed lately how most of my childhood memories are of places, not people, and of quiet moments spent by myself, maybe accompanied by the dog as we ran along the creek, maybe watching John Wayne slaughter Indians on TV though no one else paid attention, maybe taking solace in the cathedral quiet of the row of evergreens behind the machine shed. Where are the other people in all these recollections?

Even in more recent memories, the times and the places are recalled more vividly than the carbon-based life forms who presumably inhabited them. The exact layout of the apartment in Iowa City is vivid in my mind, even as the wife with whom I shared it fades into an abstraction, a vague blur of something non-specific that coulda been.

Maybe that's why I've been thinking of family lately, as one relationship after another goes down in flames, another shrug, another cause to wonder why bother. Is my inability to form a lasting bond with a woman, to love and be loved, is this related to the family that spawned me? The fact that I don't even know the phone number or current whereabouts of most of my family members--Is that a problem? What does it mean that I haven't even bothered trying to track them down, or they me?

A couple of years before Mom died, I asked her about a story I'd heard on the radio, about a study suggesting mental illness was a genetic trait. Yeah, she said, she'd always wondered about that. She was speaking of my problems, and her own, and all of ours. Sometimes, she said, she saw us as a doomed family out of a Hawthorne novel, forever destined to skulk down endless dark hallways, cursing the wider world we'd never know, a world untouched by madness. (Granted, she phrased it in a slightly less overwrought manner, but she did invoke Hawthorne, so the purple prose is justified.)

But she also said, What's normal? Anxiety, despair, sorrow--who doesn't feel these things? And the depression she suffered when she was younger, which may have had unspoken and untold effects on her children, lifted as she got older. It didn't go away, it just...lessened. Eventually, she realized the daily rituals which had seemed so tedious, so soul-draining, had instead become comforting, and she experienced something she hadn't known before: contentment.

I try to hang onto that conversation, and I try to remember it whenever things get rough. But still there are questions: What were the rituals she found so comforting? Did they involve people, or things? In other words, did she take comfort from her children, or the things she did for them, like preparing meals and sewing clothes?

Because if it was the latter, it suggests that I'm bound to her in deeper ways than I imagined, that she preferred solitude to company. But that wasn't Mom at all: She was nothing if not gregarious, willing to talk (or listen) to anybody for hours at a time. And I'm...not like that. Or maybe I am, but it doesn't get me very far: I don't talk, I babble. And while that can be amusing in small doses, it ultimately becomes wearying, which explains why women who proclaim their love for me ultimately move on.

Ah yes, women. Even the ones I barely know, who are only there to fulfill basic biological needs, tend to have the same complaint as the long-termers: I'm too touchy-feely. That is, I want to hold them, even after the obvious physical acts have been completed, even when all they want to do is sleep. And it's no doubt true: I want to take them in my arms, embrace them and never let go, feel something, anything, a connection I will otherwise never know.