Truth in a family is all about where you were standing, how old you were, and what you think you saw ...
As happens in most families, my siblings and I had surprisingly different childhoods, although we all grew up in the same house: My oldest brother has described our parents as “perfect.” Our middle brother had a very demanding father and a difficult mother, and I felt like an alien dropped down among mostly well-meaning strangers, some of which had to do with being different. a.k.a. gay. Take this formula and apply it to a large extended family. and the variations can play out wildly.
My father was the oldest of seven children, four of whom had children (as far as we know). Those four produced 15 offspring. Two are deceased, one is a missionary in Siberia, and another is 18, still at home with his now–84-year-old father (my father’s glamorous baby brother) and his fourth wife. I spent a recent Sunday afternoon with my brothers and several cousins representing all four families, including children from two of that uncle’s marriages.
There was small talk and catching up over eggs and lox and bagels. Eventually, cousin Bill asked, “How old were you when you found out that Uncle Ed [Evans] was actually Uncle Sidney [Levithan]? “I didn’t know that!” exclaimed cousin Jon. Some of us had been collecting information and coordinating our search for facts; others had been in some state of denial. “For me, Uncle Lou and Uncle Harold have always been on pedestals” was one extreme. “My mother disliked and resented your father” was at another. There was a lot of laughter, some tears, some tears from laughter. We created new family-isms such as “really dead” as opposed to just “dead” — stemming from occasions on which calls announced the death of someone who didn’t expire after all — or not for months or years, at any rate.
We looked at living with many secrets and the moment when each of us realized that our family is not like most other families. And we looked at how and when we tell our version of what happened. Granted, our family is more eccentric than many, but the discovery process is not unusual. Being in our 50s and 60s makes it easier, as we finally have perspective.
As a memoirist in these columns I have shared family secrets that would once have been gossip but by virtue of time and the deaths of involved parties are now, more aptly, my story. Not all of my cousins have agreed. So it was interesting to meet with them this past week. I was also aware that I was not sharing stories that might hurt those present or embarrass the living or upset too closely held denial. The first definition of integrity in the dictionary is “wholeness.” I will not tell a story that leaves me feeling uneasy in my gut. I do not want to injure or disorient someone who might not be equipped to handle the knowledge as I know it — then again, I might have it wrong anyhow!
In follow-up e-mails and Facebook posts we have expressed out gratitude for having this rich history and for having each other to share it with. We have begun to plan a reunion with more cousins and the next generation. It would be a shame to waste these precious memories, truths, and learnings,
Perception is not only a factor in family truths and relationships. As we go along, we have the opportunity to reframe our past and thereby, often, our present.