Sunday, May 21, 2006

323. Walls and doors

In addition to being knocked off my feet last week by the big, fat medicine ball of Anger, I was also sideswiped by the speeding taxi of Sadness.

My mother lost touch with a dear cousin after they became adults. I think it was because of my father, who had this effect on many of our close relatives. In any case, the cousin no longer seemed like a real person by the time I grew up, but rather a stereotype on the edge of fame who married well and moved in circles far beyond our access. Quite by chance, I found the cousin when I was a freshman in college, and she and my mother had a joyous, emotional reunion. But I also sensed a wall between them, my mother a bit awed and her cousin confused by my mother's reticence. Me, I had never seen a private home with a two-story library complete with rolling ladder, and just held my breath and tried to remember which fork to use when they took us to a fancy private club that would not otherwise let my mother and I in the door.

After the stars in my eyes cleared, I learned that the cousin and her husband were lovely, brilliant, people. My mother died before they could forge a newer, deeper relationship; the cousin and I kept in touch, refusing to allow history to repeat itself. We exchanged letters on holidays, hers always full of pride at my accomplishments. Her words touched me deeply; she said things my mother might have. But we got together for lunch only once, five years ago, and I recognized a reluctance to invite me into her immediate world that I had seen in other newly-discovered members of my family. It was, perhaps, the opposite side of the wall that my mother had built.

Last week I got a call from the cousin's sister, whom I had never met, and I learned of the cousin's death a few days before. She invited me to shiva; the funeral had already taken place. Having been through this sort of thing before, I was familiar with the awkward exercise of walking into rooms filled with unknown family. I took a deep breath and looked around for someone with my same bone structure and soon found her, my mother's cousin's daughter. She introduced me to two other daughters and a nephew, and we all stared at each other in a happy, mournful kind of puzzlement. They knew I existed; they grew up hearing stories about my grandfather, their mother's beloved uncle, stories not even I knew. But they had no idea I lived five blocks away, and none of us could figure out why their mother never introduced us all. I suspect that my mother would have done the same if the tables were turned. Those same barriers would be in place.

We hugged and exchanged phone numbers, and will be in touch. I have no doubt about this. We are all our mother's children, but there are some traits I refuse to carry on.


Regina said...

I'm back, aa, from Ireland and I wanted to say I am sorry about your cousin. It's funny how the whole relative/family thing goes... when my mother-in-law passed away, we met relatives that we had never even knew existed- and they were all lovely folk. It must be the way of the world, though- that people go their own ways. Perhaps the one meeting is all we needed...

alto artist said...

Welcome back, and I hope you had a great trip... It's true: it's never too late to connect with family, and just takes one moment--which often happens, unfortunately, against the backdrop of sadness--to reach out.