Finding True Blood
My family has always been pathetically small. Today, besides Shelley and my two step kids (it seems to be a wide step) I feel close to my brother Richard and one of his three kids; plus one cousin who falls flat on his face somewhere on the autism spectrum; another cousin in Florida, one in Michigan, and two female cousins whom, if I never called, I would never hear from.
For me this lifetime, family has been a DIY kind of thing. I’ve made it up as I went along.
I remember one warm spring Sunday in New Jersey, I must have been about thirteen or so. We were visiting our relatives – my aunts and uncles and cousins. Joyce and Gary were about my age; Joey was around Richard’s age. We always liked hanging out. Looking back, we all were hanging around Gary, a charismatic kid who was, although only six months older than I, the closest I ever had to a big brother.
That night, before we had to leave and go back to Long Island, someone – Joyce I think – suggested we go to a Met game together that spring. And as I was sitting in the back seat while dad was driving along the LIE, I felt that cozy Sunday family embrace turn to shivers as we crossed the border into Great Neck, where Monday morning would mean the bus to Junior High and a social minefield of privileged, entitled jocks and locker room bullies, not to mention hundreds of girls studiously ignoring me.
And that moment in the back seat I was wrenched by a prolonged pain of nostalgia for what never was: a family that would make a point of having fun together and that would have each other’s back and be a buffer against the cruel world.
I knew something was amiss the day I stood on the corner of Baker Hill Road and Colgate with David Kapalko, and he was talking about his grandfather.
“He did a lotta cool things” David declared. “He told us of how he once flew a plane upside down!”
“Yeah – pretty cool, huh?”
“Nah, sounds like your grandfather was a big liar!”
Next thing I knew I was on the business end of a hundred sudden knuckles raining down upon my head at once.
I was stunned.
“What was that for?” I asked.
Kapalko gave me an are-you-from-Mars? Look. “Because you called my grandfather a liar.”
I stumbled back home that day pondering this…You mean when somebody insults a member of your family, you’re supposed to fight them? This was a new concept – one that had never been taught to me. In a family, you’re supposed to stick up for one another? Not in my family.
It was never spoken – the deepest family mores are always transmitted silently – but we were always supposed to be a group of individuals. We weren’t completely on our own, but there was no sense of team. And a protective feeling? Or sticking up for one another, or the sense that we were on one another’s side? These things were just not there.
Joyce and Gary never did come to town for a ball game. In a few years, Cousin Gary would join the Hari Krishnas. And me, I’d be in legal hot water at college, because we’d taken over the Administration building in a protest, and the cops came and arrested all of us. When our parents were called to a meeting by the school’s president, they all lambasted him for busting their kids. All of them except my dad, who told him to keep us all locked up and to throw away the key.
Ah, but there at Queensborough Community, I had met Judi and Oded. We were each estranged from our strange families, and we quickly became each other’s refuge.
And the day I had them over to meet dad and Richard, and they sat there, as young lovers do, in each other’s arms, and later that night, after they’d left, and my father instructed me to never let them back in the house, for they had been far too affectionate with each other, and he didn’t want Richard, who was 12 at the time, to see this, that was the day I realized I was living in my father’s house, and not my own, and this was when I began to plot my escape.
We were all of us then – at least those I came to know — on our own, together. All of us, refugees who’d found each other and started our own family. We called each other brother and sister, and we damn well meant it. Everyone else in the world called us hippies. We didn’t mind. We were home.
Nowadays I have a client who’s about 23 years old. Her parents sent her to me to fix her, but she was never broken to begin with, just different, different from them. She also came from suburbia and also was privy to its biggest gift — the certain, empirical knowledge of what money cannot buy. In time, and partly with my help, she woke up to realize any craziness she’d exhibited had been the result of trying to survive within a crazy family culture.
And in time, she also has found her way. Today’s cultural descendents of hippies are called Burners, and she has just returned from her first Burning Man gathering. And this edgy, arty, partially drug-induced, and radically off-the-grid culture has become her refuge. Soon she may leave town forever and take off for parts unknown, secure in the knowledge that wherever she goes, she will find brothers and sisters along the way, and they will take her in.
I know the feeling. And for some of us these days, family is more than something you’re born into, the prey of fate. It’s something you make up as you go along. It is said that blood is thicker than water. But in this world we’ve been thrown into, finding communities of common values that we hold in our core can be like finding our own blood flowing in those around us.