Family · Life on the Island · What I'm Reading · Writing Life

Family Structures and Strictures

The birds are busy at the feeder this morning, perhaps in anticipation of tomorrow’s snow. Among them is a large Red-bellied Woodpecker, nearly twice the size of the other birds out there. He’s been around quite a bit this winter, but it is always a treat to see him contrasted so brightly with the myriad brown birds that we normally get in the colder months. It is for visitors like this that I insist on maintaining the feeders in the winter, even though seed isn’t cheap.

It’s midmorning and I’m having the last of the real bagels with my tea. Even stale they are better than supermarket bagels. I feel lucky to be able to get them every once in a while. I consider what I might be able to get done today after I have decided that my morning reading is complete. I’ve just started Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. She is one of the most prolific writers I can think of, and yet this may be the first book of hers that I’ve read. I vaguely remember being assigned something of hers in college, but I don’t remember what it was (a poem, maybe? a short story?), and like most of what we read as English majors, it was dark and depressing. I’ve not tried anything of hers since.

I picked up Mulvaneys from the hospital exchange cart, and I will probably bring it back there when I’m done with it. Hospital book carts have saved my sanity more than once last year and I try to contribute to them when I can. You don’t really sleep much in hospitals, you might as well have something good to read. I’ve now taken to packing books whenever I think I’m going to be admitted, but I almost always get through the ones I bring.

My grandparents with their five children.

So far, I like the Mulvaneys and the simple, almost religious optimism that holds their lives together. Yet, you know their happiness is tenuous, that something awful is going to happen that rips apart their carefully constructed lives; like a squirrel dashing through the dazzling but delicate web that took a spider so long to build. When Oates describes a non-central character’s effort to set his own children against each other, I stop and seriously wonder if this is common in Irish families, as it was certainly recognizable in mine.

This gives me something to think about in my own family and my own writing. Growing up I had this dollhouse that I played with well into my teens. My sister was four years younger and constantly begging me to play with her, which is part of the reason. The other reason, I didn’t realize until many years later, was that the dollhouses (there were three of them) served as a setting for the stories in my head. Those stories were almost always about the kind of family I wanted, rather than the one I had. The family in my head was always large, active and social. They enjoyed each others’ company had each others’ backs.

For decades I’ve wanted to set a story in a multigenerational family with a summer house. I have such wonderful descriptions of the place, I could make you want to go there. the place itself is a character. And yet, I can’t do it because moving the story forward would mean that one of my characters would have to do something horrible to another. I can’t bear to imagine what that thing might be although I have plenty of examples in my own family.

For a writer, there’s a lot to explore within the disintegration of a family. Society would like us to think that these are unbreakable bonds, but they fall apart all the time over money, abuse, resentment, and the smallest things can become the last straw. After those bonds have been broken, what makes them worth trying to repair? Or is it just easier not to?

This has been on my mind a lot since my cousin’s death around the holidays. I suppose there was an “event” that precipitated our all falling away when we were kids, but in truth, fault lines among the adults already existed. That my mother’s generation never thought those sibling bonds important enough to repair saddens me when I think of it. Yet, my own generation is similar. We all live in different states, we have very different lives and we would never reach out to each other for help. It’s just the way it is.

Perhaps I imagined this might change after many of my cousins started to reach out to each other, mostly on Facebook. Maybe my surprising anger at her passing is not just about her age, but about the fact that she won’t have a chance to be a part of that.

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