Tuesday, August 08, 2006

What I learned at my family reunion.

I recently (by which I mean "last weekend") had an opportunity to attend my family reunion. This is interesting (to me) for a couple of reasons. First, I grew up all over the world, moving every couple of years, so I have rarely seen any family outside of my parents and grandparents. My dad's brother visited quite a bit when I was little, but my mom's brother is virtually a stranger to me due to the fact that, while I was growing up, he was experiencing some "bumps" in his life. My mom's brother has two kids, and two stepkids, and I haven't seen any of them in nearly 20 years (my cousins were 18 mos. and 3 y/o at that time). Secondly, I am extremely close to my parents, but, for the reasons above, I am not close to anyone else in my family, including my grandparents or uncles. I always felt like none of my extended family wanted to know me. They didn't make the effort, and I was a kid so I probably shouldn't have been required to make the effort. As a small child I thought we didn't HAVE any relatives, and as an adult, I realize that I have some but haven't been too interested in getting to know people who seemed uninterested in getting to know me.

And then, my mom asked me to go to my family reunion. The reunion was for my mom's father's side of the family. Tragically, my grandfather died when my mom was 19. He was out chopping wood with my dad (her boyfriend at the time), and basically just dropped dead right there in the woods of a heart attack. To hear anyone talk about him, he was apparently a wonderful, kind, and talented man who died way too young after years of suffering from various health problems and not having the resources or education to get them properly treated or understand his role in prevention and care.

On the way to the reunion, my mom told me stories about her dad, and his four brothers and one sister. The boys were all musically talented (as is my mother), and the girl was beautiful but died young of a brain tumor. Her father and uncles would sit in their yard on Saturday nights, around a fire, playing guitars and harmonicas and singing old Glen Campbell and Roger Miller songs, "King of the Road" and "Gentle On My Mind." My mom's uncle even sang for the band at a local dive bar, where he was apparently quite the lothario. Her father wrote songs, and submitted many of them to country music agents, hoping to get one of them recorded.

When we got there, I did not recognize anyone except my mom's brother and his wife. And that's only because they were staying at the same place as us, I have only met him perhaps three or four times in my life before last weekend. Only one of my grandfather's brothers is still alive. As the evening wore on, my uncle, my mom's uncle, and his two sons, all got out their guitars and played old country songs, I even heard some Johnny Horton, which was interesting because I wa raised on him, but I rarely meet people who know of him. It was very touching to get a glimpse of what it would have been like way-back-when.

Anyway, back to what I learned.

Every single person said "You should have known your grandfather! He was such a wonderful man!" I wish I had known him. My dad's father is a nice man, but he was never one to be particularly emotional or to try to maintain a close relationship with me. My mom's stepdad is nice, but I never got to know him too well either. By the time I came along, he had married my grandmother and my mom was never very close to him, so I guess that kind of rubbed off. He doesn't have kids of his own, and I don't think he wanted to, so I doubt he had much interest in being an involved grandparent. My mom's mom was a...um...let's be nice and say, a harridan. She once told my mom that I was her least favorite of the three grandkids. So, I wish I had known my grandfather. It would have been so important to me to have someone in my life who was stable and interested in me in that grandparently way, where everything I did was perfect and wonderful and worthy of praise. I never had a relationship as a child with an adult who accepted my unconditionally, and I wonder what difference that would have made in my life and development.

I spent alot of time talking to my mom's two first cousins, kids of her uncle that is still alive. It was interesting to hear them say "Oh my God, you are SO a part of this family! Your personality and the way you talk and your humor are all so 'this family.'" They (as opposed to my mom's cousins from one of the other brothers of her father) in particular ARE so similar to me, it's bizarre that I didn't grow up around them.

I looked around my family reunion and here's what I saw. Me. I saw Me. I saw curvy women with gorgeous, thick hair, and beautiful lips, who weren't skinny, and laughed really loud and told bawdy jokes and drank beer and teased everyone mercilessly. I saw handsome men who were confident but self-deprecating, ambitious and talented, devoted to their families, down to earth and kind of salty. I saw people who had made mistakes, but were forgiving themselves and keeping their sense of humor.

In short, I haven't spent much time with my extended family, but it was sort of fascinating to get dropped into my family reunion and see so many people who were so much like me, especially personality-wise. Perhaps there is a personality gene? Certainly, I LOOK like my mom, and my mom looks like her cousin and the sister of her father that died young, so I guess the family resemblance is going strong. Upon meeting my mom's cousin, he looked around and commented, "Damn, we got some NICE looking women in this family!" And it's true!

I'm thinking alot lately about the way I look, accepting the way I look (and whether I ever can or will), and now I'm thinking about genetics and how it affects my self-perception. All these curvy women! Am I really lazy because I'm a bit heavier than I'd like to be? Or, is it unnatural to starve myself into submission in a way that is CLEARLY against my genes' better judgment? Certainly, I am heading back to the gym, and I want to be healthy and in shape, but as always, I struggle with when enough is actually enough. Personality-wise, I often feel ostracized here because people in Seattle are so reserved that my percepti0n is that I look like a screeching shrew in comparison. My reunion teaches me that I need to remember that *I'm* not "wrong," I'm just me, in a place where people are different than me.

My family reunion was really powerful to me. I am thinking about alot of things I haven't had time to think about recently, between school and the bar and everything else. I will likely explore this some more after I wrap my brain around it a bit more.
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