"People talk about 'dysfunctional' families; I've never seen any other kind." ~ Sue Grafton (American Writer)
To attempt to explain my family would be an effort of futility, as I imagine it would be for most individuals. Family matters are fundamentally complex – I should know given my line of work. I can sit back and observe and appreciate that complexity when working with other families; however, when applied to my own, my appreciation declines significantly. Let’s start with some background:
I come from an intact family – I know, shocking these days. The ‘rents are still married and their 42nd wedding anniversary is soon approaching. My mother was born in 1948 and was raised in a small out port in Newfoundland with eight brothers and sisters. Terming my mother’s community as a “small out port” is generous as it was the “not-on-the-map” kind of extremely small when she was growing up. Mom was raised dirt-poor....she jokes that when times got tough her brothers and sisters would fight over a rock sandwich to get fed. She was 13 by the time she had electricity and at no time did she ever have indoor plumbing. Mom often recalls wearing the same clothes year after year as there was no money to buy more and talks about the kids being “lousy” (meaning having lice) and being dirty a lot of the time. Her mother stayed at home, as most mothers did, to take care of the kids and her father was often absent as he was a member of a shipping crew that did import and export from Newfoundland to the United States. Her parents, my grandparents, came from Scottish heritage of the Grant Clan. Mom got her ass out of that small out port at the age of 17 and she asserts that from the day she was born, she knew she was meant for bigger things than that community could ever offer her. At 17, she travelled from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia with only $2.00 in her pocket and made a life for herself (the life she established pre-Dad days) by working hard and being honest. My mother is nothing if not brutally honest.
My father was born in 1947 and was raised in a small Acadian community on the French Shore of Nova Scotia. His family was even bigger (French, Catholic – go figure) and he had 12 brothers and sisters (that lived - there were more children, however, some of them died). Dad made 13. His mother was a school teacher before becoming a mother; however, I’m sure being either pregnant of breastfeeding for 26 years straight put a damper on her career. His father was a farmer and a logger and was very good at both. Dad started working on the farm as soon as he could walk and has continued to work to this very day. He brings an entirely new definition to the phrase “hard work.” Although my father’s family did not have disposable income of any kind, they were well taken care of in terms of having plenty of food, being clean and having at least good clothing to go to church every Sunday. Although Dad had to work since the day he was born, the stories he tells of his childhood have a happier tone to them then Mom’s do. Mom’s stories are slightly more depressing and gloomy due to the circumstances of her family’s insolvency, whereas Dad speaks of having a cellar full of preserves and his mother always baking bread and rolls. Mom might joke about fighting over rock sandwiches but, in reality, they did fight over lard and small corn on the cobs you could get in a can. These differences led my parents to have different outlooks on life and different understandings of what it means to succeed. Success to my mother meant being the exact opposite of poor, always putting on a good appearance to others, getting a good education (to to avoid being poor) and never wanting for anything. Success to my father meant putting in an honest, hard day’s work, taking care of your family and making a life for yourself and your kids that was better than the life you lived as a child.
Although my mother worked before I was born, after I graced this world with my presence in the spring of 1978, my mother transitioned into a full time stay-at-home-Mom. My father established his own construction company in the early 80’s where he worked as the general contractor – initially on jobs requiring additions and renovations and, over time developing into some pretty custom work for some pretty high paying customers. For as long as I can remember, my father worked six days a week (sometimes seven), 14-16 hour days. He used to fall asleep at stop lights and during construction season when the roads were backed up. He was a tired guy. He has rough, calloused hands and I never remember minding this. He still smells like wood and sawdust, two of my very favourite smells to this day. Mom, being the one that stayed at home with us, was the one to bake the cookies and be the disciplinarian and, although I repeatedly heard the phrase, “wait until your father gets home” from my mother, I don’t ever remember a time feeling frightened. Dad was kind through and through and never laid a hand upon us. Mom was more of a loose cannon....but, man she could bake some good cookies.
Living in a family with one parent who was Acadian French and one parent who was straight off the rock (the province of Newfoundland is often referred to as The Rock in the Maritimes) was interesting at best. Both came from vastly different backgrounds; however, the functioning of their communities – albeit different – was very similar. Church had a big role in the education system and attending church on Sunday’s was not an option....it was what you did. Mom was raised Anglican and Dad Catholic and, upon getting married, Mom converted to Catholicism. Regardless of whose house you were at, the rules were the same and if you acted up – it didn’t have to be your parent who cuffed you upside the head to put you back in line – that was a privilege every parent had in the community. Everyone in the community basically had the same thing – next to nothing with a lot of mouths to feed.
One difference between my mom and dad’s upbringing involved the level of affection they received as children. Dad’s family was somewhat cold in the sense that hugs and kisses were not offered readily and no one was fussed over past the time of being an infant. I never remember my Grandmére (French for grandmother) being affectionate or snugly in any way when I was a child being forced to spend every Easter at her house that was still heated by a wood stove and only had three TV channels that were all in French. I don’t remember my Grandpére at all; although there are pictures of me with him as a child before he died. My mother’s family – extended included - was very affectionate and Mom tells loving stories of her grandfather, “Pop,” living with them. It’s my understanding that hugs and kisses were easily passed around and that my grandparents were adoring, funny and generous people (as we would expect Newfoundlanders to be). I never experienced these grandparents after I was a baby as both my grandmother and grandfather died. My Grandmére, however, lived until my late teen years and I guilty wish that I had the Newfoundland Nan and Poppy around rather than the Grandmére. Even the title is cold. I never experienced the cookie baking, cosy, protective, tender grandparents that my friends often describe and I really wish that was part of my narrative. As an adult I see my parents, now grandparents, interacting with my now six year old nephew and think I really missed out on something special.
In saying that I have a nephew, it would make sense for me to talk about my sibling a little. I have an older sister who is my senior by five years and it’s just the two of us, her and I. We couldn’t be more different if we tried in terms of our lifestyle, our beliefs, our approach to human interaction, our politics and so on and so forth. We don’t particularly look alike either – she’s about 5”3 where I stand at almost 5”11. Her body is type is straight from my mother’s side, yet her facial features represent Dad’s side of the family. I am the opposite and my height comes from my father, but my eyes and across the bridge of my nose look just like Mom. My sister’s personality is a lot like my father’s – reserved, a thinker, pragmatic, whereas my passion for people, helping others, and my temper comes straight from my mother. However, despite our obvious differences – and they are plentiful – put us beside each other and get us talking and there is no doubt we are sisters. Our expression, our sarcasm, our sense of humour and our wit are extremely similar.
My sister married her high school sweetheart, a wonderful man who has been present in my life since I was 14. He was the first boy she brought home that I didn’t have a crush on and now, all these years later, I affectionately refer to him as my “brother.” He comes from an equally dysfunctional family, also an intact, two-child family. He and his older brother are much closer in age than me and my sister are and I’ve heard plenty of stories about his older brother beating the shit out of him on more than one occasion when they were boys. That would have never happened in my family. If anyone was going to get the pleasure of beating the shit out of anyone.....it was going to be Mom. A funny aspect about my brother-in-law and his brother is that they have both produced boys that look exactly like them. The boys (one being my nephew, the other being his cousin) are both six years old; however, one is older by four months. They are carbon copies of their fathers and I can only image what it is like interacting with them both from the perspective of my sister’s in-laws (my nephew’s other grandparents). I imagine it must be hysterical....like a watch wound back in time. My sister and her husband have done well for themselves. After getting married at the tender ages of 25 and 26, they waited longer than anyone had patience for (except for me, I had all the patience in the world) to have a child. Both were well established by the time my nephew was born in 2005. My nephew is basically the best thing ever.
I suppose you might be wondering where I fit into this dynasty; I have asked myself the same question repeatedly over the years. The easiest answer is: I don't. If I was adopted or was the result of an affair my mother had, it would actually make more sense to me. Although I possess qualities from both my parents, I am fundamentally different from the individuals who comprise my family unit. This is where the stories for these posts will develop from: a place of belonging to a family just by virtue of being part of the family, while being completely different from them and never feeling a true connection to what it means to be part of my family.
Should be interesting.
Should be interesting.