There are the families we are born to, and then the families we choose. Sometimes, if you are very lucky, the two overlap.
Just this week, I saw the film version of Into the Woods. I was a musical theatre person in high school and college. I should have known better. I had friends who knew the musical by heart. I had heard of it, of course, but I had never seen the stage production, didn’t know the full story. But I am a fairy tale junkie, and the opportunity (i.e., babysitting) arose for me to see the film, and so I went. (Spoiler Alert!)
I think I cried through the whole second half of the film. I had expected a happy ending. What I got was a rush of heartbreak from my own losses, mingling with those of the characters on screen. The Baker had lost his wife. Jack (of Beanstalk fame) had lost his mother, and a giant’s widow was after him for killing her husband. Red Riding Hood had lost her mother and Granny to the aforementioned giant’s widow, who was terrorizing the kingdom. And Cinderella had discovered that Prince Charming hadn’t been named Prince Sincere for a reason.
So it wasn’t a happy ending. But the survivors created an ending they could live with, coming together, fresh from their separate disasters. And part of my strong reaction was in recognizing their grief and their determination to keep going.
I first started a regular communication with my cousin Billy when our parents, his father and my mother, brother and sister, were both dying of the same kind of lung cancer. They died fifteen days apart, in February 2001. Billy was the one who kept in contact. He continued to reach out through my own running away from the grief and the family it seemed to belong to. (Not realizing that grief belongs to every family.)
My mom’s other brother, my uncle Dick, died in April 2011, less than a year after my dad died. It was following his death that I got back in touch with his children, especially the three eldest: Barb, Ed, and Janis. Ed had sung at my mom’s funeral and at my wedding three years later. Barb and Janis lived up north, and were raising kids, and I just didn’t see them very often. A road trip in 2005 was the first time I had seen them in years, and the first time Brian had ever met them.
But honestly, thank God for Facebook. Because now we can all connect, despite distance and busyness and laziness. And thanks to Billy, we have all been able to gather in person. First, Billy proposed we gather in Atlanta, where he and his partner Garey and his mother, my Aunt Maggie, live. We all liked it so much, we wanted to get together again. This time, Garey offered a condo in Sarasota. Just last week was the second trip to Sarasota, and I got to go solo, with Brian and Jack staying home.
Barb brought a puzzle. Such a little thing, a puzzle. But it reminded me of my mom, who loved puzzles. She hoarded them, stacked in precarious towers on closet shelves. A round puzzle that was completely red. Another round one with wavy black and white lines. A huge one with mushrooms of various color and toxicity. When she was sick, she and I would piece them together: first the sides, corners, and edges. Then bit by bit, the middle. Standing over the table with Barb and Janis and their mother, my Aunt Ellen, nearly brought me to tears. I hadn’t done a puzzle since Mom was alive.
When I was eleven years old, we lived in Florida, south of Sarasota, in a town called Port Charlotte. Mom had to go into the hospital in Tampa for six weeks, for a colostomy. At first, I stayed with my dad in Port Charlotte. He went to work, and I watched soap operas and played the piano all day. Then Mom said no, and she sent me to stay with her sister, my Aunt Helene, near New Port Richey, north of Tampa. At the time I railed. I wanted to be with my friends that summer, not with Helene and Mom’s mother, Meme, and my great aunt Rosa Lee, all of these old people. But years later, Mom explained that she had wanted me to be with them, because they were the most like her.
When Mom died, I didn’t hear a lot from my cousins. I felt very alone. All alone in the world. I have no siblings. I thought this was it, I’d be alone forever. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I’m not angry about it. I just accepted my loneliness as a fact. People may say, “You’re never really alone,” but let me tell you. When you’re an only child, and your mom is dead, and your dad is inconsolable, and you live alone with a cat, there’s a big Bullshit! just waiting to come out when you hear that platitude.
But near the end of Into the Woods, when the older characters tell Jack and Red that they’re not alone, even though their mothers are gone, I burst into big, fat, ugly, gulping tears. Because exactly a week earlier, I had been riding bikes on the beach with a cousin who has my mom’s nose, and another cousin with my mom’s name, in the sunshine on the sand. And let me tell you: It just doesn’t get better than that.
So, we have a family that we’re born to. And a family that, over time, we choose as our own. And if you’re very lucky, like me, sometimes they overlap. At just the right time, in just the right places.