I would think there should be some class, some group therapy, to prepare families for big reunions and holidays. Some basic training on how to conduct ourselves. Only family can push our buttons: chronically self-absorbed aunts rifling through our kitchen cabinets, parents making hostile, passive-aggressive comments at the dinner table, asking leading questions, browbeating us—politely—all evening long. Most of these people have either no awareness or no consciousness of how much their visit is dreaded. Not because we don’t love them but because we do.

Tough Love

While searching for some art for this essay I discovered I Will Follow, a brilliant, quiet, contemplative work by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay has posted an extremely unconventional trailer, bereft of the usual noise and subsonic rumble most Hollywood trailer begin with. The trailer simply flutters open pages of a book and DuVernay (or her editor) tell a story with simple pictures. Salli Richardson-Whitfield, in a mesmerizingly subtle and grounded performance, is spending time with her dying aunt, played with sumptuous élan by Beverly Todd. There is no Crackberry in her hand. No television blaring in the background. Auntie had her complete attention and they were enjoying each other the way people used to enjoy each other before everybody got iPods. This was how my grandmother and I used to spend time. I’d walk the mile or so to her house to bring her the paper on Sunday. The paper cost a quarter but she’d give me a dollar and I’d feel like a rich man for the rest of the day. I didn’t go there for the dollar, though. I went there for the peace. I went there to get away from my sister, whose name may as well have been Loki (sideways geek reference). My grandmother and I would sit and spend time. I’d watch the cherry trees bloom in her back yard and listen to stories, listen to wisdom. Sometimes we’d watch TV. She’d pull something out of the fridge at random and heat it up—some leftover afterthought that would taste like a four-star gourmet meal. I was always proud of my mother for her sacrifice, for how she took life on, how she never gave in or gave up. But here was the cost: my mom was not around a lot of the time and when she was she was exhausted from working so hard and from taking care of us. These moments, these formative years, belonged to my grandmother. Mom resented that. She wasn’t always happy to discover I’d wandered over there. But, more than the crowded apartment I grew up in, my grandmother’s house was home. Not because it was bigger or nicer, but because she was there.

When this woman died, I had to beg my mother to come to her funeral.

Listen To The Stories: Richardson-Whitfield in I Will Follow.

When did family become so complicated?

The premise of I Will Follow is a woman, who had been living with her dying aunt, dealing with moving on after the aunt’s passing. The aunt’s daughter—her cousin—arrives and appears to channel her grief over her mother’s death or her guilt over not having been there for her into aggression toward the cousin who’d taken her place in her mom’s life. I have, at this writing, yet to see this film but I find this to be an extraordinarily relevant premise.

Family is extremely complicated. We are hard-wired to engage with family in ways we never would with even our closest friends. Often, family are not friends at all. They are people we’d likely not be drawn to or engage with if we were not related to them. We didn’t choose them, they’re just here. We often have nothing in common except a shared lineage of people too drunk to use birth control. We tolerate, appease, overlook, engage, pursue family. We beat our own selves up when we fail to do so. How could you do that? She’s your cousin? She’s also a nosy busybody who can’t keep her mouth shut. No one can disappoint us like family. No one can wound us like family. I would suppose, over the course of my lifetime, the majority of stress in my life was family-related while the majority of my joy took place outside of it.

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Family members who establish boundaries with family, who do not put themselves through the constant turbulence of the genetic crossfire, are often seen as heartless. But family requires some self-discipline and, often, self-defense. Almost everyone I know has the same movie playing in their head: this contented, happy group of relatives who love one another unconditionally and who all get along. The Norman Rockwell painting with the family gathered ‘round as mom places the turkey on the dining room table. Reality, as most of us know, is a lot tougher. Love, in my family, was rarely unconditional. It usually came with strings.

No. 414  |  November 2013   Catechism: Where We've Been   Start   Study: Manifest Destiny   Pilgrim's Progress   FAMILY TIES   Giving Thanks