Imagine that your parents and sister (and her family which include your two nephews) live within 4 miles of you and that you have, virtually, no relationship with them.This was the excerpt, posted in Mels' Weekly Roundup, that led me to Is This What It Is (Or is it)? post on Estrangement. Because it didn't take much for me to imagine what she might be describing.
I wouldn't say that I am estranged from my family. We get together for major holidays and birthdays with my mother and brother, but our gathering seems more driven by Hallmark and expectations and duty than by genuine affection. I understand what she writes about your family never getting to know you, about never feeling unconditionally supported for how you thought or felt or what you wanted to do, about family suggesting that "you are too difficult, demanding, elitist, ungrateful, selfish" to want a relationship. I understand the guilt and self-loathing, chastizing myself for being a horrible daughter for not feeling the sentiments in the Hallmark cards I read as I would search for one that would let me send good wishes without telling lies.
The other day I posted about roots and rootlessness, about my lack of knowledge about my blood grandparents. What I didn't mention was that my father had eight other brothers and sisters, my mother two. And that I don't really know any of them, either.
The thing is, relationships take work, and the relationships into which you are born (or where you find yourself as an adoptee) are no exception. Being a parent doesn't give you easy automatic emotional connection to your child. As I'm sure you all know, just because you've lived in the same house with someone doesn't mean that you understand them, or they you. For my father, this work of relationship-building would have been complicated by the fact that his surviving family was spread over three continents, in an age before the internet connected us all instantaneously, not to mention that he left home at an early age to go to a Jesuit boarding school in France. (We knew my two aunts in Spain, and my uncles in Guatemala and Puerto Rico, but none of them terribly well.) For my mother, the work of relationship-building was complicated by the alcoholism of one of her brothers, and by the decision of her other brother to move, first an hour away, then to Texas. In both cases, they chose to allow the complicatedness of relationship-building to prevent them from reaching out, and so we grew up without an extended family.
I find myself annoyed by people who take the "convenience" approach to relationship-building. I had a former colleague who was like an aunt to my children. After I left my job, though I reached out to her a few times, I only heard from her once. I was astonished. Wasn't I worth more to her? But I should have known better.
Sometimes I think that maybe I'm like this, too. That I find the work of relating too difficult. On the other hand, I was the only one who kept in touch with my alcoholic uncle as he deteriorated. I've followed friends across the country. I can be counted on to follow up, to seek you out, to be there, as long as the relationship is not toxic to me or to my children. My mother, on the other hand, has never once flown to Texas to see her brother.
How do you find yourself working at relationship-building, even in your own family?
I learned last summer that avocadoes make a pretty fabulous dressing. I learned this spring the kale and farro go surprisingly well together. I learned just recently that you can make salad out of all sorts of things thrown together, and the secrets include good olive oil, a variety of textures and shapes (crunchy, chewy, flat, round, leafy, nutty), and ingenuity. But even salad still requires a little bit of effort. And it's totally worth it in the end.
Inspired by Heidi Swanson's Kale Market Salad
1/3 c. scallions, chopped
1/4 t. fine grain sea salt, plus more to taste
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. ripe avocado
1 1/4 t. honey, or to taste
fresh pepper to taste
1 bunch kale, destemmed, torn into pieces
1 1/3 c. cooked farro
4-5 carrots, very thinly sliced
1 avocado, cut into small cubes
1/2 c. almond slices, toasted
Using a hand blender or food processor, puree the first seven ingredients (through pepper) together until smooth. Taste, and adjust with more salt, or honey, or lemon juice.
In a large bowl, combine the kale with about half of the dressing and se your hands to massage the dressing and kale together until the kale appears almost slightly wilted, as if it has been blanched. Add the farro, carrots, more dressing, and more salt, and toss again. Add the avocados and almonds and toss gently before serving.