Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Family Octopus

Rhett and I have had several discussions about where to live when we're eventually married. At the moment, we're both at school in DC. His family is from the District; mine is from NY. He wants to live in DC to work in politics; I want to live in NY to be near my relatives. (Not to be unfair to Rhett: he's been very open to the idea of living in NY near my family.) For me, this has to do with the support system that I grew up with, the kind where everyone knows everyone's business, and, as obnoxious as that can be (as my younger sister will attest, after everyone at Christmas Eve dinner tomorrow finds out that tonight she was at a party where the cops showed up! I can't wait!), the annoying parts are symptomatic of the much more important parts - the deep and abiding love and interconnectedness and interdependency that's part of having a close family.

Dodie Smith referred to it as "The family-that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to."

Now, given that Rhett comes from a smaller, more spread-out family than I do, I started to wonder - maybe my own family is not the only one I need to consider. Once we say "I do," his family is my family, and my family, for all it's kinks and quirks, is his family. That day is several years in the future, so he thought I was nuts when I brought up the idea that maybe the ideal of a family support system is best served by our staying in DC. Maybe it's not just about the support system that I would receive from my several dozen relatives who all live within 15 minutes' drive of each other, but about the support system of which we would become a part, which we could provide to his parents, who, in their old age, would have no offspring, no siblings, no parents, no cousins, no aunts and uncles and in-laws living in the vicinity if we moved away. Maybe the ideal of families being there for each other that I'd always cherished would be best served if I sacrificed something - being near my family - for several other goods - his career, being near his family, the help they'd possibly need from us in the future.

Then he told me that his parents planned to retire out of state (out of district, I suppose, since they don't live in a state, now do they?), anyway, so we wouldn't need to worry about whether we were providing for their needs and their support system when we were living in DC. Why the heck would we want to live there, then? Lovely city though it is, how could anyone ever choose - intentionally, willingly choose - to live where they had NO FAMILY AT ALL? But we'd make our own family, you say? That was when I launched into a rant about how the isolation of the nuclear family is an unnatural product of the past 100 years or so, and how no family is meant to exist in a vacuum. I think he stopped listening. Who - tell me who - is going to pick up our kids from school when they start throwing up in the 3rd grade and we're both stuck at work? If they have no aunts, no grandparents, no cousins nearer than a 5-hour drive, what would we do? You don't want your kids sitting in the nurse's office all day long because we have no extended family, do you? Like I said, he'd stopped listening. Do you blame him?

This was some months ago, and, as I said, Rhett has since been quite open to the idea of living a small-town life around the corner from my buttinski relatives. Today, I again thought about the importance of family. (How insipid a sentence!) Not just of family - of actually living as a family. Of having a life in which being a family and considering family are of paramount importance. This morning, after doing a few chores for my mother, I went to my grandmother's house to take her shopping. We just went to CVS; she wanted to get a few last-minute trinket-y gifts for a couple people she hadn't bought anything for, but she doesn't drive anymore. We walked around CVS for half an hour or 40 minutes looking for chocolates that weren't too expensive but didn't look cheap, and the like. Then we went back to her house, where she taught me how to make an old family recipe, we cooked dinner, she wrote down her grandmothers' maiden names for me and my budding interest in genealogy, and my grandfather told the story of the time he thought his best friend drowned at Coney Island. We were supposed to clean squid for tomorrow's dinner, but she said it had gotten too late, so I'm going back in the morning.

There was something about today that just felt so right. I think that a lot of the time, people get caught up in the obligation of helping relatives, especially elderly relatives, and forget that it should be something we desire to do, too. I like taking Grandma shopping. I feel bad that I don't get to do it often enough, since I'm away at school so often. I learn from her, and I try to actually appreciate what she has to teach. She's done so much for me, and I so little for her. The very least I can do - and I do gladly - is take her to CVS on a Tuesday afternoon.

If I didn't live nearby, if I stayed in DC my entire life, who would take my grandmother shopping? Well, my mother, or one of my sisters, or any of my dozen (give or take) aunts and uncles, or myriad cousins. That, of course, is assuming that they don't have an attitude similar to that of the hypothetical, District-dwelling me. If moving away from my entire family and living in DC is an acceptable, even an optimal choice for me, then it may very well be for any given relative of mine. And once it's a choice for any one of them, it could be the choice for all of them. Would my up and moving to Washington cause that? Of course not. But the attitude that moving away from your family is not good is what anchors us all here. Without that attitude, we'd be adrift, any or all of us abandoning the rest to their fate. If we didn't feel a responsibility toward each other on a very real, very mundane, very day-to-day level, who would take my grandmother to CVS?

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