Do you ever stop to think about your adult siblings, and compare them with the awkward, pimply teenagers you grew up with? (Note to self: do not alert family members to this post.) It’s really hard to believe that those adults-in-the-making became the professionals that I interact with today. Seriously? You’d hire my brother as your engineer, or let my sister near your baby with a needle? Why, exactly? And when did they become experts in their field, and where was I? Believe me, they’re saying the same thing about me. “That’s my little sister! You’re not going to let her consult on anything, are you?!” What was really happening while we were so busy coping with one another?
My intent in focusing on family is not to define what a family is. As a single, I’ve been adopted into a family or two, and I’ve been incredibly grateful to have the lines re-drawn to include me at the table and, in some years, under the Christmas tree. I know the quiet desperation, at times, of wanting to have my own family, so I do not take any relationship lightly. But families are different from friendships, even the best of friendships. As adults we are in a family paradigm as a result of choices we’ve made. We choose to stay relevent to one another, or we allow our loved ones to be cast aside like a paper boat, listing and taking on water.
I have had the amazing and wonderful blessing, in these last few years, to connect with my sister’s family now that I live here in the Midwest. As the interactions take place, I see family from a different perspective. There is simply nothing to prepare you for what comes next: a crisis with tears; a question; a deeply profound insight from an unlikely source; two more questions; an argument over an undetermined, yet coveted item interrupted by the bleating of an abandoned toy and the repetition of the first question, only louder. There’s nothing extraordinary about repeated questions, howls of distress or the “Shh, I’m on the phone.” What’s extraordinary is that before we have the chance to ponder it twice, these family members will be conducting teleconferences in the middle of La Guardia and flying stand-by in order to get home for Thanksgiving. They’ll be doing our dishes and reminding us of doctor’s appointments because we’re not as razor sharp as we once were. Oh, believe me. I’m thankful for the moments.
My growing up years were more about relationship than I realized. I learned how to live with my siblings, in spite of their inane, absurd, highly annoying, arrogant or antagonizing ways. And they with me. It’s true that my parents taught a great many life skills, e.g., cooking, and gardening, etc. but maybe those were the superficial lessons after all. Is it possible that conflict resolution, forgiveness, patience, listening-while-frustrated, and peacemaking were the lessons they were modeling but not really discussing? I wonder if there was anything else they were saying?
I recently heard someone say that parents form their children’s identity by reminding them of who they are, moment by moment, day after day. This is such a mystery to me. At what point does a young girl or fellow grasp what’s been instilled? And how does this feedback manage to so vividly shape the who of our identity? I remember well the verbal instructions, “Ladies don’t slouch. Stand up straight.” Surely my brother and sisters remember the imaginary plumb line Mother would draw from the tops of our heads. At what point does a parent stop saying the words and begin twinking their brow, a telegraphed message across the room, to pull yourself together? Yet my parent’s instructions were mild compared to my grandmother’s.
An expert seamstress and cook, Grams taught all her children and grandchildren a myriad of skills. My earliest memories were of watching my Mom and Grams cook and quilt together. They would nod sagely, wordlessly consulting one another, dismantle, re-assemble until a beautiful masterpiece was born. Their tireless work always seemed so effortless. Year after year, I would prepare my 4-H sewing projects beneath their watchful eyes. My wobbly seams were doomed. “Rip it out, child. It must be straight.” Heartbroken and frustrated, I would tug out the stitches and then battle with my temper and the sewing machine until a worthy outcome was produced. I basked in their hard-won pleasure with my work.
Grams always kept a charming home. It was where she wore her heart on her sleeve, with momentos and photographs of treasured places in Germany. The nostalgia and tchotchke always left you feeling like you had visited a place in her heart. That time had stopped for a moment and you had really lived. I did not realize that Grams’ standards for me would endear her to me. Her lectures I endured wordlessly as I learned she just needed a snuggle from me to stem the tide of words.
Though I’ve lived in many places through the years, it occurs to me that the walls of my kitchen have always resounded with the rumble of Grams’ deep German voice. Growing up, I perceived her to be stubborn, opinionated and, above all, outspoken. Yet she loved me. Deeply. I memorized the look in her eyes, her beautiful skin, and the wrinkles on her hands. I would hold hands with her just because I could and, over a cup of heavily sugared tea we would discuss all the world’s problems. Though she enjoyed people very much, it was in the quiet moments together that she showed me who she was. She would talk about her family in Germany, and history, and about her sons, and her daughter, my Mother. She would talk about the neighbor boys who had tragically died in the war, and how she taught herself to drive. While I wish that I could remember the stories, for I did not write them down, it occurs to me that it is not so much the historical accuracy that matters. What matters is that she told me, and I listened. And I carry within myself a part of who she was.
It’s been a while since I’ve taken on a sewing project. Yet, it’s pretty safe to say that the work that I produce today as a software developer bears a strong resemblence to those straight seams that Gram required. I think what surprises me even more is the motherly manner in which I exact straight seams from those I mentor in the office. Stubborn? Outspoken? Surely you jest! Let’s have a cup of tea.