Family Legends

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I’ve had a number of memorable aunts in my lifetime, but only one was a badass who rode a motorbike: Aunt Cindy, who was married to my Uncle Richie for many years when I was a kid.

I’d see Aunt Cindy every summer when my parents would put my sister and I on a plane to Connecticut, where we’d spend the entire summer living with my grandparents. We’d spend part of the time at their house in Newington and the rest at their small cabin on the shores of Bashan Lake in East Haddam. My grandfather had started camping at Bashan Lake with my grandmother and their three kids in the 1940’s, stopping by the mansion of the landowner Mr. Smith to pay him a few cents a night to put up a tent. Gradually my grandfather worked up the courage to ask Smith if he could pay him a monthly sum in exchange for the right to set up a permanent cabin. When my grandfather got the go ahead, he built a tiny cabin up at his house in Newington and brought it down in sections to the lake, where it still stands today.

I liked Newington, but my sister and I would eagerly await the moment when we’d see my grandmother starting to pack a cooler full of food and my grandfather gathering his fishing gear. Even their dog Sam would howl in anticipation as he saw my grandfather heading down to load the station wagon. On weekends we’d usually be joined by my Uncle Richie, who lived next door to my grandparents with his wife Cindy. Richie, my mom’s brother, had become a paraplegic in his early twenties after doctors mishandled the removal of a tumor that had grown on one of his vertebrae.

Richie was a renowned fisherman on Bashan Lake. My grandfather had fitted their boat with a special chair for Richie, and we’d lower the vessel in and out of the water with a winch and chain. I’d accompany my uncle on most of his fishing expeditions, and we’d almost always return with a string of bass or trout.

Fishing became the tie that bound me to my uncle; with Aunt Cindy, the strands were numerous and ever expanding. Her curiosity and joy for life naturally aligned her with children. While other adults in my past might appear muted and gray in my memory, Cindy jumps out in vivid technicolor. She drove a baby-blue Chevy with a CB radio on which she was always talking to truckers. She rode a motorcycle whose color matched her car. She loved “fluffernutters,” spreading peanut butter and marshmallow fluff onto toasted bread and letting the two layers melt and commingle before biting in. She had red hair and a smoker’s laugh and a flowery bathing suit that looked out-of-place on her stocky body. She called my grandparents “Ma” and “Pop” with a sincerity that transcended “in-law.” She played the guitar and sang beautifully; she once told me that old posters from her hometown in Pennsylvania advertising shows with her band in it used to say “with a voice like Joan Baez” next to her name. Some nights Ernie Olson a few cabins down would host bonfires, and Aunt Cindy would bring us and her guitar and spend hours leading the group of revelers in song while we tried to stay invisible in the background, incredulous that we were getting to stay up so late.

As a kid, I knew nothing about her relationship with Uncle Richie, other than that they seemed like best friends. And so I was surprised at age 13 when my mother told me that Cindy had left Richie and that they were getting a divorce. I never saw her again.

But last week, Annie, Rio, and I were up at the cabin (a yearly summer ritual), and I saw my cousin Billy, now in his forties. We started swapping Aunt Cindy stories — he told me that she showed him how to properly smoke a cigarette; that she’d patiently tried to teach him how to play guitar. He also reminded me that she served a pivotal role in keeping the cottage in the family back in the early 80s. What  happened was that Mr. Smith and his wife had died and passed the land on to their children, who considered selling the entire lakeside property to a developer. Cindy initiated a series of meetings with neighbors who over the years had set up leases with the Smiths and built cottages that now lined the lake. Cindy researched home-owners associations and finally cobbled together a group of residents who pooled their money and convinced the Smith children to sell the land to the association instead of to the developer. Thirty years later, the Wildwood corporation still stands, and the cottages thrive.

“I wonder where Cindy is now,” Bill mused. “Imagine if we could find her and invite her down here — how much she’d love to come back to the lake, and to see how we turned out.”

As I sat there looking out at the lake, I wondered if Cindy could even imagine that my cousin and I would be standing here all these years later, at that place she once fought for, getting all misty-eyed over her. If not, I wish I could tell her so, because sometimes the best way to remember who we are is to hear who we’ve been to other people; an experience that one person might have forgotten may loom as transformative in the life of another. One night Cindy woke me up at two in the morning and with a whisper and a flashlight led me down to the fishing boat. “We’re gonna get some bullheads,” she told me, and my eyes widened at the thought of catching this scary-looking cousin of the catfish who fed nocturnally along the bottom of the lake. As she rowed us out under the light of the moon, I felt raw and awake to the once hidden night.

Playing with Fire

The other day I went to fetch Rio from our friend Jeff who had been looking after him for a few hours. We met at a local biodiesel plant where Jeff has an office.

As Jeff and I caught up, I heard a loud noise coming from the corner of the grassy field where Rio and Jeff’s son were playing. My eyes landed on Rio throwing rocks at a building that housed one of the plant’s offices, complete with big windows and solar panels. Jeff had actually built it. Just the kind of structure you don’t throw rocks at.

“What are you doing?” I asked Rio as I approached.

“Throwing rocks,” he said.

I looked closer to see that a rock Rio had thrown had pierced the glass of one of the windows, creating a small hole with a web of fracture-lines emanating from it.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I asked.

I listened to his weak answer and then lectured him for a few minutes before calling Jeff over. “Yup, we’re going to have to replace this window,” Jeff said calmly. “It’ll probably be between $100 and $200.” I thought I heard Rio gulp.

Rio knew he was in deep. At one point he asked if there was such a thing as a “jail for kids.” I thought about my options. I knew I could punish Rio by taking away movies and playing with friends, or I could think of something that related more directly to his crime and that actually enhanced him in some way.  Because my wish is to have Rio learn from his mistakes instead of being haunted by them. This meant giving Rio some dynamic consequence he could work in his hands. In my politics I’ve long favored restorative justice over punitive justice; here was my chance to apply a grand idea to my own little court case.

First, I knew Rio had to acknowledge his mistake and apologize to the people it impacted. I had Rio apologize to Jeff, since he had built the house. I also told Rio we’d come back during the week to apologize to the women who work in the office. He’d have to look them in the eyes and say he was sorry. Finally, I told Rio that he would have to do community service to earn the money needed to pay for the window. I imagined asking friends to think of menial but skill-building jobs they’d be willing to pay Rio a little cash to do: Sorting recycling? Sweeping? Weeding? All the proceeds of course would go toward the window.

Rio seemed dismayed by the idea, which was a good sign. I think he intuited that this punishment would be much more taxing than losing a few privileges. “It will probably take you three months to pay back that money,” I told him.

Then his face lit up with an idea. “I know! I’m just going to go home, grab two hundreds from the Monopoly game and give them to Jeff! It’ll be over in about five minutes!”

Oh my, this was going to be a long three months.

As we drove home, I thought about my own childhood mishaps. One hot July day when I was thirteen my friend Rob and I were bored and starting wondering if inflammable paint was less dangerous than flammable paint. You know, like invalid is the opposite of valid? We decided to pour a little of both kinds of paint on piles of dried leaves to find out.

We quickly learned inflammable paint was very flammable! The two of us cheered as the flames crackled with technicolor. After 30 seconds or so, we beat out the fire with sticks and then moved on to the next pile.

On the fourth try, we laughed and frolicked a little too long, and when we tried to beat out the fire, it was too late.

“Get your mom!” I yelled.

Rob ran up to the house. “We started a fire!” he blurted.

“Oh Robbie!” his mom snapped, running into the house to call the fire department.

Rob and I raced back to the scene of the crime, only to find a greater inferno and a new witness: Mr. Pickering, Rob’s neighbor and my future high-school English teacher, who was trying to douse the fire from his side of the fence. He knew we were the culprits but would not deign us with a look.

As the fire inched closer to Pickering’s yard, the firemen finally arrived, hosing down the fire to black smoke in mere seconds.

As the fire trucks readied for departure, the chief pulled us aside: “You two are lucky — this whole block could’ve been up in flames!”

That evening Rob’s father, an Episcopalian minister, came home and calmly took in the news. In his car on the way back to my house, he offered to come in and explain to my mom what had happened. I accepted his offer immediately, knowing my mom’s reaction might be tempered by his mellow nature.

Reverend Rankin and my mom talked in private for a few minutes and then he bid a kind adieu. My mom sat down and looked at me. “Today is Friday,” she said. “By next Friday I want a ten-page report on the subject of fire, with a table of contents, a section defining words like “flammable” and “inflammable,” and a bibliography with at least six sources in it. I want the whole thing put in a three-ring report folder and in my hand by noon.”

I think I remember this event so clearly not because of the error I made but rather for the path my mother laid out for me in the wake of it. This is the beauty, and the labor, of restorative justice. It would have been easier for my mother to punish me through a grounding than to administer her rather complicated plan. And surely it would have been simpler for me to endure the loss of a privilege than to delve into encyclopedias and check out books from the library for the damn bibliography. But then there was that memory, guiding me as I stared down Rio.

Sorry About That

When I lived in Johannesburg, I was struck by South Africans’ tendency to apologize for occurrences that weren’t their fault. Early on I remember walking along a sidewalk and stubbing my toe against a root that was bursting through the cement. “Sorry, sorry,” the friend I was with said.

“What are you sorry about?” I asked. “You didn’t do it.”

“I know,” my friend replied. “I’m just sorry that that happened to your toe.”

Thus my introduction to what I now call the South African Sorry.

I grew up equating an apology with an admission of guilt. In the charged arenas of family dramas, school popularity contests, and romantic relationships, I would hold back sorrys until I was good and sure something was my fault. And when I felt wronged, I’d often take someone else’s apology as evidence that I was in the right. It always felt like the supreme gotcha.

The South African Sorry was different; it implied no guilt necessarily; just an acknowledgment of pain.

These different approaches to contrition stem in part from the varied ways people and cultures approach the individual versus the collective. The United States surely must be the capital of I; sometimes I feel like I’m moving among a mass of people who are each trapped in a bubble, oblivious to the fact that other people are actually fellow humans that compose a “we.” I fall prey to this as much as anyone; I often think, If everyone takes care of themselves, individually, we’d have a pretty good collective meld going on. Take care of your shit, and I’ll take care of mine. In this context, there is no need to apologize for anything unless it stems from one’s actions as an individual.

In contrast, in a more collective culture, which South Africa arguably is, despite its dark history of apartheid, it’d be fitting to apologize simply because a misfortune occurred in your midst — the collective has taken a hit, and it’s only sensible that witnesses to that would express sympathy. A friend once told me that she still harbors painful memories from childhood of tripping or banging her shin and no one in her large family offering any words of comfort. She wanted to know someone had noticed her misfortune.

I suspect America’s litigious culture also plays a role. Because lawsuits are so common and courtroom dramas have populated our screens for decades, I wonder sometimes if we go through our days subconsciously perceiving our interactions almost like court cases. We don’t want anybody to “have” anything on us; a record of an apology might just be used against us someday.

In the big picture, it’s not surprising that South Africa followed the end of apartheid with its extensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was established to help heal rather than assign blame: victims of politically motivated (read racial) crimes were able to tell their painful stories, and perpetrators of such crimes were invited to come clean on their transgressions.  The commission traveled around the country and was broadcast on national television. It was an imperfect process, but there were many powerful moments: former president F.W. de Klerk apologizing for apartheid; chairperson Archbishop Desmond Tutu weeping uncontrollably at the words of a former Robben Island prisoner describing his torture in the hands of security officers; a white policeman apologizing to a distraught African woman for killing her son. I’d never seen anything like it.

The only U.S. equivalent I’m aware of is the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to help that North Carolina city heal from the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, in which five African Americans protesters were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan during a political rally. As the Commission came to a close in 2006, the Reverend Peter Storey, a South African who participated in both reconciliation commissions, concluded, “So long as the darker events of our communal past lie buried and unacknowledged, they act like toxic waste, seeping continually to the surface to poison the present.”

This resonates to me on a personal level;  I have found that apologizing, even for events that were only partially my fault, addresses that which was festering, both in me and in the other person. It also serves to acknowledge someone else’s pain. Most importantly, when I issue a South African Sorry, I undermine my own ego, which loves to keep appearances of perfection up. With him off the scene, I’m able to feel fallible, which is exactly where compassion and empathy live.

A Letter in Hand

I remember so clearly the feeling of opening my mailbox to find a handwritten letter inside: seeing my name scrawled across the front of the envelope, sliding my finger under the back flap to open it, rubbing the grain of the paper against my thumb.

And there was nothing like sending mail either: the time it took to compose a good letter (sometimes a day per paragraph, the half-composed missive traveling in my backpack from house to cafe to library until I finished it); the rush of affection I’d feel signing the closing valediction; the final quiet moment before I dropped the letter into the mailbox where it emitted a satisfying thud as it found its temporary home among all the other envelopes.

Upstairs I store almost all of letters I’ve ever received in a box labeled “memorabilia”: there are the sweet cards from my mother when my sister and I would stay with my grandparents for most of the summer when we were kids; the long letters exploring our mutual love of punk rock from my middle-school friend Rob Rankin after he moved from Southern California to the northern part of the state; the missives from friends and family when I moved to Johannesburg to teach high school after I graduated from college. Sometimes when I open this box I don’t come downstairs for hours; the past becomes a hall I walk through as I hold these artifacts in my hands.

When email arrived on the scene in the mid-nineties, I lamented the threat it posed to the traditional letter; now I’m as nostalgic about those cyber-missives as I am about real letters. I remember the rush of seeing a bolded “1” next to “new mail” and the exquisite pleasure of deciding whether to read the letter quickly on screen or to delay the gratification by printing it out and reading it under a tree later in the day.

My love affair with Annie largely played out through email: because I was a graduate student in 1994 and she had an Internet savvy brother, we were both early adopters of the medium. Our first introduction, through a friend, happened through email, and when we consummated our relationship as romantic and I summarily moved across the globe to South Africa, we exchanged hundreds of long emails where we revealed our hearts’ hidden folds through the wires. I once printed out all of these letters; it was a 200-page manuscript. If someone asked me to tell them the story of our love, I could just hand them that sheaf of paper because it chronicles the tale so well.

These days my inbox is about as juicy as our house’s mailbox. Both are crammed with junk mail and bills, with the occasional informational item thrown in. It’s almost shocking when real letters arrive. Instead we now have texts, social media, and instant messages. There’s something to be said for the rush these can bring, too, but the more instant the communication, the more forgettable it seems to become. I’ve had “IM” conversations that seem to exist oddly out of time; I may be present during them, but once they’re over it’s almost as if the exchange is wiped from my mind, the memory of it vague like a dream come morning.  There’s also so much less room for rumination: modern communication may be fast, but you know you’re losing something when complex thoughts have to be whittled down to 140 characters.

Annie was recently downloading information from an old cellphone before she sent it back to the manufacturer. First came the contacts; then the photographs; next the video. And then she asked, “Should I also get all the texts?” They represented interesting moments of several relationships, but she wasn’t sure they merited a save. In the end, she opted to let them go; that doesn’t mean they lacked value, but I do wonder what will happen if we have no more records of our lives.

At least with email there’s some captured history; I occasionally click back to the very opening pages of my emails and read the long notes I exchanged with friends back in the old days of 1997. But even this is ephemeral; a few weeks ago I opened my inbox to find all of my old emails mysteriously erased. I engaged my provider’s customer-service machine, and the best I could get was a “real time” instant-message exchange during which the technician was unable to restore my emails. Fifteen years of correspondence gone in an instant.

In some ways I feel lighter without those thousands of notes following me around, but the truth is I have lost words that were given and exchanged in moments of passion, pain, and love. Part of the reason I dutifully keep all of my old letters and journals is to remember the paths I’ve taken in life, which anchors me when I’ve lost my way. As the folk singer and storyteller Utah Phillips once said, “I can go outside and pick up a rock that’s older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn’t go anywhere, did it?” I know that box of memorabilia upstairs is my version of this rock; in a fire, it’s one of the first items I’d run in to save.

This Peculiar Stranger

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

A decade ago psychologist James Hillman theorized that children come into this world with much more agency than we tend to admit. Parents undoubtedly have influence, but Hillman argues that too many mothers and fathers embrace the “parental fallacy” that they can and should determine the life paths of their offspring. He encourages parents to abandon this false sense of control and to welcome instead “this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst.” Khalil Gibran spoke to this centuries earlier when he wrote that children “come through you but not from you, / And though they are with you they belong not to you.”

These are welcome words to me. I feel immense pressure to father well, in part because my own father left our home when I was nine. This works fine when Rio is being himself in a way that is conducive to what we want. But when his exuberance runs counter to society’s norms or even my own plans for the day, I can become deeply demoralized, partially because I subconsciously translate this as a failure on my part. Hillman reminds me that my role as Rio’s father is critical but also limited, and that to expect that I can mold him into doing just what we (the family; the neighborhood; the school; society) want is tantamount to fighting an immense force of nature.

The challenge, then, is to guide Rio into well-roundedness without snipping off his characteristic edges, and to not lose my sanity in the process. On a bad day, I hover too close, micromanaging Rio in the name of steering him in good directions — it’s like I’m wearing a special pair of glasses that magnifies every little bit of Rio I want to change. On better days, I take a more sanguine view of the situation, giving Rio the room to be himself and intervening only if he commits a serious infraction. In these moments, I’m able to relieve myself of the self-imposed “master parent” role and see Rio the same way I might view a friend’s child — delighting in the big picture of him in spite of the messy details.

In Hillman’s mind at least, a laissez-faire approach is advisable, not only for parents’ serenity but also for practical reasons: he believes all the prostrations and interventions may actually end up doing little to change the route of the ship. It’s not that he’s encouraging people to give up conscious parenting, but he is inviting us to surrender the narcissistic notion that we can make our children what we want them to be through some perfect concoction of coercion, incentive, and sweet talk. “Instead of saying, ‘This is my child,'” Hillman writes, “parents must ask, ‘Who is this child who happens to be mine?'”

I saw this in action the other day when Annie, Rio, and I were in Jackson Square in New Orleans. Rio had been a bundle of contrariness all day, his active nature exploding in all the wrong directions. Then he started chasing pigeons. Normally this doesn’t bother me much, but there were so many pigeons that their fluttering made a street vendor look over with what I perceived as irritation. I told Rio to stop; he kept doing it. Just as I got ready to trot out the hard line, his focus suddenly shifted to the very vendor I had noticed before. He walked over to her and asked, “What are you doing?” She explained that she was a fortune teller. He was fascinated, asking her about her tarot cards and the rocks and crystals scattered across her table. She told him he could pick out one of the rocks to keep. Rio proceeded to examine each rock closely, holding it up to the sun and inspecting the light it refracted onto his palm. “I want to pick the one with just the right color,” he told me.

The psychic looked at me and asked, “What are you doing about his talents? Because I see a singer, or a performer of some kind. He will challenge you, but you’ve got to give him room for his gusto.”

As Rio carefully appraised each rock, I thought about what she said. Talent. Gusto. Challenge. Room. So much is out of my purview. Rio finally decided on a mauve stone, and we thanked the woman. Within minutes he was spinning and tossing it on the cobblestone street in some elaborate game he had concocted. Seconds later, he threw the rock a little too hard, and it broke. I didn’t say much, believing the vagaries of his particular zeal will be more his struggle than mine.

At the Funeral in the Woods

This Saturday Rio went to his fifth funeral in four years. It was a very sad but beautiful day: our good friends’ third child had been born still, and they had gathered us to honor their baby girl and bury her remains. The service’s most heartbreaking moment came when their three-year-old daughter broke into sobs as the death of her sister became indisputably final.

There is no part of me that wishes to shield Rio from death. Even before his first funeral, he’d encountered the death of countless living beings, from the flowers outside our window to the dead deer we once found in the shallows of the river. He naturally inquired about what happened, and Annie and I answered as best we could: that death was sad but also a part of life, and that its arrival does not necessarily mean the end of life but rather the evolution of it into something else. When Annie’s father Bill passed away, we comforted Rio with the notion that Bill lives on in the sky, in the flowers, inside of us. Rio thinks the same about his great-grandfather Joe, his beloved aunt Mary, and Cubie, our neighbor from across the street.

For Rio to understand the cycle of life, he needs to see death, not by peeking out from behind our backs as we tried to protect him from tragedy but by taking it in with a good, clear view. When we paid respects to Annie’s sister Mary, Rio and all the children sat on blankets in the very front row. Two of the funerals he has attended featured open caskets, and I felt no hesitation as I paid my respects to my grandfather and Annie’s dad with Rio at my side. He’s young, but he loved those men and deserved a final look just like the rest of us.

We have taught Rio to embrace the unknown; that he can’t know who will win a card game, or what a walk around the neighborhood will bring, or if a character in a book will save the kingdom or falter along the way. So why should we treat the Great Mystery any differently? If we sit around fearing death, aren’t we teaching Rio to fear the unknown, which of course is life too? After all, nothing is certain.

About two years ago, Rio and I were walking in Bynum and he said, “Papa, I don’t want to die.”

“I know, my love, but everybody dies,” I said.

“Even you?” he asked.

“Even me.”

“Well I won’t die!” he declared.

“Rio, you know lots of people who have died: Baba, Grandpa Joe, Cubie…”

“But they’re not gone!” he insisted. “They’re still here. Cubie’s still here!”

“Where?” I asked.

“Up there in the trees,” he said, pointing to a giant oak. “She’s up there! HELLO CUBIE!”

Today I asked Rio what he was thinking on Saturday when he watched our friend stand at the podium and give, through tears, a beautiful eulogy to her daughter. “I felt sad, but I kind of felt happy too,” he told me. “You’re always sad when you’ve lost something, but you’re also happy you had it.” To think how less nuanced his view of loving and losing would be had we shielded him from the dark side of life.

Nicknames

Of the nicknames that Annie and I have given each other over the years, two that have stuck are “Big Shit” and “Little Shit.”

Annie and I are both passionate people. We like to be right, and we’re scrappy in a fight. We don’t argue often, but when we do, it can be a serious bout; judges may score Round 2 to Annie and Round 3 to me, but ultimately, we almost always both end up on the mat. It’s not that we knock each other down but rather that we wear each other down; by the twelfth bell we’re exhausted shadows of our selves.

It’s almost as if I float out of the real Tim, who is generally easygoing and helpful, and come back as rigid Tim, who is uptight and ungenerous. And it’s as if Annie, who is generally sweet and flexible, becomes Annie the drama queen, who is demanding and obstinate. We seem to do our most damage when we slip into these roles.

At this point, we usually resort to opposite strategies. I want to finish the fight with some sort of reconciliation, even if it’s nowhere near forgiveness or redemption and closer to “you’re not that bad.” Annie may have the same goal, but she generally gets so worked up that she needs some distance; she’s not very good at pretending to “make nice,” and she’s told me several times she’s trying to save my ass from further damage when she slips through the ropes and heads to her office upstairs.

But however long our fights last, Annie and I share an understanding that the ugly sides we sometimes show each other are just one face of our multi-sided diamonds. We’re both shits, but it’s aberrant, not normative. We both know that our partnership engenders growth, despite these flashes of regression.

“Big Shit” and “Little Shit,” then, are actually olive branches. They diffuse the imperative we both feel to win the fight. They say “You are wrong” and “I am wrong,” or, just as plausibly, “You are right” and “I am right.”  They concede that we are both imperfect, fallible creatures in love.

When Annie finally comes downstairs and utters my nickname (I’m Big Shit), I know we’re on the way back up.