“I’m not sure I know why we have families,” he said. “Can you find any excuse in existence for them?”
Stuart was on about something again.
“I don’t know,” I said. I had pretty much always taken the existence of family for granted. Didn’t think about it much.
Stuart obviously had and his own experience of family was not encouraging.
“What I do know,” he said, “is that for me — and I think this is true for my generation — family seemed kind of irrelevant. I know when I was a kid, I never wanted to spend time with relatives. They were boring.
“What I had instead was friends. You don’t choose your family, so you’re stuck with the luck of the draw. You do choose your friends. So, when Thanksgiving comes around, I want to spend it with those near and dear to me, in other words, my friends, and not my family.”
“But aren’t you close to your brothers?”
“Well, I’m close to Bernie, but I chose him as a friend, I didn’t merely inherit him as a relative.”
“So,” I said, “friends are a substitute for family?”
“I don’t really think of it that way. Not a substitute; friends are my family. And I’ve talked to many of my friends about this, and they feel the same way. Perhaps it is only our generation; we grew up in the ‘60s, and the whole panoply of institutional authorities were not just drawn into question, but actively disparaged. It isn’t that we don’t like our parents, but rather that our parents did what they were supposed to do: They didn’t choose us, either. Oh, they chose to have us…”
He thought for a moment. “I guess,” he said.
“But whether they chose to have children or we came by accident, they didn’t choose to have the particular kids they did have. We came as strangers to their house, and pretty much, when we grew up, we left as strangers.”
“Then, how come everyone seems to think family is so damn important?” I asked. I was thinking of political speeches, lauding family; Biblical injunctions; I was thinking of all the literature I had read, family epics, family tragedies, family comedies. Homeric or Faulknerian. It was as if I were missing something.
“I’m not sure, but I think that in the past, and I mean centuries ago, maybe eons, people didn’t travel as much, didn’t meet as many people, and in more tribal times, clan and family gave you something you felt you could trust — despite the evidence of all those family epics you mention, whether Homeric or Faulknerian. Nowadays, we go off to university, meet many more people and community is formed around shared interests rather than shared blood.”
I thought about this and was not satisfied.
“You create a family when you marry.”
“Well, I’ve had …” and here he stopped to count, his eyes turned upward and this tongue between his lips … “lemme see, seven wives, official and unofficial, no, eight, if you count Helen, although she never actually moved in, and either I left them or they left me. Mostly, they left me.
“But the family you create is akin to the friends you make: It’s voluntary. At least in our culture, you get to choose your wife. If you do it right, your wife is your friend. Further, and this is an important point: Your wife or your husband is the only family member you actually want to have sex with, or at least that you are allowed by custom or law to have sex with. That makes a spouse an anomaly in family relations.
“This voluntary relationship — the ‘elective affinity’ — is essentially different from what you have with your cousins or your older brother. Any relationship there is purely accident. The lottery numbers pop up one by one, but you cannot predict any of them.”
“That may be, but when you get married, whether your wife is your friend or not, you have kids and you love your kids and want to give them preferential treatment in a hard and harsh world. They may be accidents, in terms of personality and how you interact with them, and even if they are teenagers and don’t want to be seen with you in public, you still love them in a way you cannot love even your best friends.”
“Well,” said Stuart sheepishly, “I haven’t got any kids, so I wouldn’t know.”
“But you have nephews. Do you love them?”
“I guess so, but that doesn’t mean I want to have them over for Thanksgiving.”
“I take your point. But I have the example of my wife.”
“You’ve been with her a long time.”
“Thirty years …”
“Can’t fathom that. Mind you, Carole’s great. You hit the lottery, as it were. But my longest stretch, I think, was seven years before it blew up.”
“But anyway, Carole has a take on family I’d never really considered. Family is something different for her. For her, it is where she came from.”
“You mean, like genealogy?”
“Sort of, but she isn’t so much into the family tree as such, or into whether or not she has a coat-of-arms, but rather, that she is made up of the hand-me-downs, genetically, of the ancestors, the piling up of character — of meaning — that has concentrated in her. Her family is her roots, deep in the ground, and she is connected to them as literally as the tree is to the root ball, all of a piece.
“She sees her hair in her grandmother’s hair, her jawline in her father’s, her love of nature — and, I might add, her stubbornness — in her grandfather. She grew up with her great-grandmother in the house, who was a Civil-War widow, and sees history not in paragraphs on a page in a book, but in her wrinkly skin. She wants to know how her great grandfather came to live in North Carolina, whether he is Scots-Irish, why they eat collards or sing certain hymns as opposed to others. Obviously, this is not all genetic. A good deal is cultural, but I don’t think Carole makes that much distinction: It is all roots, all the long line of ancestors, which, for her, go back — and I’m not kidding — to Adam and Eve, or whoever you want to pick as the ur-progenitors. Her interest in cave men is part of the same thing. She calls it ‘the long man,’ the person drawn from one generation to the next the same way a plant goes to flower, a flower to seed, a seed to seedling, to plant, to flower, to seed and so on in a continuous recreation of the same life — the same DNA shuffled around — of which she is merely the latest flowering. Or the antepenultimate: She has now sprouted a daughter, and that daughter twin granddaughters. So now Carole can see she isn’t the end of a long line of ancestry, but only one link in a continuity.
“Thus, family for her isn’t simply the people who she shares Thanksgiving dinner with, as if they were all discrete entities, but rather as if they were the acorns hanging on the same oak tree, in a sense, a single person with multiple incarnations. At Thanksgiving, even if she is alone, she is having dinner with all of them.”
“Well, that is Carole, through and through, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and it has made me think differently about family. I share your sense of relatives as something you’d rather not have to spend time with. I have chosen my own ‘family’ of friends, who mean a great deal to me. But I also have come to see the ‘mystic bonds’ of family — again, not as a question of whether I want to spend time with them. I don’t, really. But rather as a continuation of a process.
“Looked at another way, I am a bit of my parents planted in the future to grow, and to plant my son there in the future that extends beyond my harvesting.
“I had the oddest experience a few years ago. Did I ever tell you about it? You remember when I was married to my first wife, we had a son.
“Yes. Boy, that was a long time ago.”
“And just after he was born, we split up and I didn’t see my son anymore. I lost touch with my ex-wife and with my son. I was young and a prat, so I moved on without much thought of it. But a few years ago, I got a phone call and on the other end a voice said, “Are you my father?” It was my son, some 30 years later. I had not seen or had any contact with him for 30 years.
“Well, Carole and I went to Austin, Texas, where he was living and we met him and the shock was palpable: He looked exactly like I did when I was his age. Not just in physiognomy, but he wore the same kind of thick-rimmed glasses, the same plaid shirts, the same long hair I had back then. It was uncanny. He was living with a woman who came from the same county in North Carolina that Carole came from. His house was a mess of books and CDs and DVDs. He worked, at the time, in a used bookstore and was in charge of the classics section and the poetry section. His favorite literature was the classics. The resemblance was uncanny.
“I had always assumed that in the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ controversy, that nurture was by far the more important. We were raised at a time when we thought, ‘It’s all cultural.’ But here was evidence in front of me that perhaps it wasn’t all cultural. Perhaps DNA ruled not only the shape of our noses, but the preference we might have for Manhattan or New England clam chowder.
“The real clincher came when we walked through his office at the back of his house and there, on the top of a bookshelf, he had a world globe with the ball taken off, turned upside down with Antarctica now at the top, and replaced. I laughed. Back home, on top of my bookshelf in my office was a world globe that I had reversed to put Antarctica on the top. It was almost scary. How many people have done that with their globes? What are the chances that father and son, with no interaction for three decades, would each do the same peculiar thing?”
“So, you’re saying then, that as opposed to the question of whether you choose family or friends, that the question is basically irrelevant: That family is who you are, that ancestry defines your nature and you have family to thank or blame for it.”
“I remember having this discussion many years ago with a colleague. We had both grown up in New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s. We shared a good deal of nurture and could understand many of the same cultural references. But he was from an Italian family and I was from a Norwegian family. Despite how much we shared, he had a preference for Fellini films and I had a preference for Bergman.
“Not that I couldn’t appreciate Fellini — I do — but that deep in my bones, I knew the Bergman world; it was my interior world. While the Fellini was tremendous, but exterior to me. There is something in my genes that responds familially to the world of Bergman that Fellini doesn’t hit. But it was the reverse for my colleague. Italian genes felt at home in Fellini.
“In the old days, I would have chalked it all up to culture: He grew up in an Italian family and so the folk ways would have felt familiar. But now, I think — it’s only tentative, of course — but I think perhaps it may be something genetic. This may be the collective unconscious that Jung wrote about. The pile of chromosomal tendencies, tastes, judgments, behaviors, that have been reinforced over the generations by the distillation and concentration of DNA.
“I’m sure that upbringing and culture plays a part, no doubt, but I now think that there may be something inherent, that if I had been adopted by an Italian family, I would still feel more at home in Bergman. Not provable in my case, perhaps, but I think plausible.”
“So, I think you are saying, that you are inevitable in terms of family as you are in terms of history, that you may not like the times in which you are born, but you simply have no choice in the matter, and that all those relatives who bore you on holidays are just the titrations of chromosomes and you are thus embedded in your family like raisins in a muffin. No choice. Just is.”
“Still don’t want them over for dinner.”