It’s the hot water you were born into. You were in it before that, even, steeped in your mama’s body. But you come out and go right into the family pot, and the flavor is simmered right into you, for good or for ill. It smells like your family, it tastes like your family. You can’t get away from it, no matter how far you go, but you won’t really know which part is you and which part isn’t. Is some part of your bones your own? How far down into my body do I have to go to find some purity*? Is all I am apart from my family some faint dot of light, a web of thoughts? Whose brain is this?
*I almost exclusively see this purity in my own children, though. They may have steeped in me but I feel more like a door they walked through, completely independent except for the shape of an eye, the angle of an eyebrow. They had to get here somehow. It had very little to do with us. To me, they came as the adults they’re going to be, wrapped in the temporary, frustrating chrysalis of their own baby suits. But that’s them.
On the one hand, I don’t want to be a part of a family, a member of an inescapable group where fifteen of us are walking around with the same mouth. A family is like a cult, and the curl at the side of your lip that you share with Cousin Sue is the telltale marker. We’ve both been there. We know.
Bound by a secret, bound by something that only your family understands, bound by a sadness, your family’s sadness. Your own family’s shame: no one else’s is like it. Good to have a place to go where people also know the secret, the secret thing that renders you a family. Not everyone likes this soup. It’s a family recipe. It tastes familiar, we all love it. We’re used to it.
Two blood lines. One side of the family dominates. The other I can’t see. It’s like the portrait you can stare at that’s a woman from one angle, a vase from the other – only here all I can see is the vase, no matter how plainly visible the woman is. One side bullies the other side out of existence. Van Gelders* trump Valtanens. My father’s side wins.
*My father’s mother’s maiden name was Van Gelder. My maiden name is Kunz, so wherever you see the word Van Gelder, you can substitute Kunz. However, it was the Van Gelder wing that was the loudest and the closest, so it’s Van Gelder from here on out.
In the Van Gelder family trunk: 1) Clairvoyance, passed like a beam from generation to generation, a light right between the eyebrows. No, a window, and through that window the light passes. 2) Volume, vehemence, fight. 3) Something bent, something twisted. Secrets. Pockets of ill mental health. 4) Treasures from the Far East. Chinese and Indonesian blood, years logged in India and on Java. Philosophy. Spices. A framed, gilded leaf from the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat when he reached enlightenment, the leaf an offshoot from the original plant, like all of us descendants that have come down the line. 5) Vintage stories with famous faces passing through. Henry Miller, Gloria Swanson, Salvador Dali, George Bernard Shaw, E.E. Cummings. The effect altogether is shabby, tweedy, glamorous.
And then, shoved into a corner, is my mother’s side: so vivid for her, so inaccessible for the rest of us. She grew up on a farm in Northern Finland. The farm was called Siertola, and for her it was like Tara. Her memories are of cows, and skating on frozen lakes, and yellow leaves, and the texture of her wool coat. They’re beautiful to her, they’re moving, and they can barely be heard over the Van Gelder din. The Valtanen music is too quiet, it’s too spare. Long, slow, single cello notes against a wintry background. So much is marked by absence. I met my grandmother before she died – she was just like a stick figure. Skinny, with straight hair that stuck out, and no English. I couldn’t tell what she was like. And then she was gone. My grandfather left her when my mother was one, so he wasn’t there. He was a streak of dark hair, a cloud of alcohol, one meeting with my mom when she was 15. “I hear you’re my daughter.” “That’s what they tell me.” And then he was gone, too. Valtanen faces are broad, their limbs are sturdy. I only know what we look like. I don’t know who we are.
Finland was too far, and we only had the one representative, so we defaulted to Van Gelder. We were swarmed by cousins on Sunday nights, talking about Theosophy and arguing over curry at the dinner table. Voices rising, arms waving. Privately, I loved it. It was warm and wild and loud and familiar and it felt almost like mine. Publicly, Van Gelder blood was freak blood and I wasn’t happy about it. We were vegetarians before anyone knew what the hell that was. We were Theosophists. “What the fuck is that?” asked everybody. (Can’t do it for you. Not now. God bless Google.) My grandmother was a famous clairvoyant who as a young girl transmitted messages from soldiers who died in Gallipoli to their families, healed people with her hands. It felt like we were the goddamn Munsters. I felt like Marilyn, looked like Eddie, worked on being the Munster who could blend in, pass for Grade B if not Grade A American. I dumbed it down, blanded it up, played to the crowd. “What religion are you?” (Oh, shit.) “We’re…Christians.” I learned to tell jokes, be cool, shake off the familial stuffiness. I loved being free of it. I loved making my own persona.
Here comes the regret. There’s something too poignant here that I don’t want to look at. Distancing myself from my family, rejecting them. Subtly. There’s betrayal in here somewhere, and I don’t know who did it first. I don’t want to look. And there’s a love that I don’t want to talk about either.
What can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth.
There’s something at the core that I didn’t show you, that I can’t show you, that you’d never be able to see anyway, because you’re not my family.
This is hard. Family. Jesus. I’m losing my way, here, maybe on purpose.
I buck at being part of a family. I would sort of rather be alone. It can’t be helped, though. Also, that’s not true, and I love them. Oh, who knows? The topic makes me want to stick my head out of the window. It makes me need air. And we don’t have time to properly address this. The hot water we’re born into, the haunted houses we grew up in. The drama soaked into the walls. Aeschylus, Tolstoy, Ibsen, O’Neill. Everybody knows the family is a killer. The safest place on earth, right? Your home. Wonderful. The back of your hand. Yes! True! And you spend your whole life dismantling the little bombs they accidentally planted inside you. (That’s too dramatic and also not dramatic enough.) Whatever note I leave this on, it’s the wrong note. What did you do to me? Thank you for everything, sincerely. The other one. Both.
This did nothing any justice. Sorry, family.
P.S. This is cross-posted from my dear friend Josh Grimmer's new concern,Writing, Writer, Writest, which he's set up in order that not-writing-enough writers could begin to write more. So I'll be writing there each week on their given theme, and occasionally cross-posting over here. Do go and look. There are some real gems.