One of my cousins died last week. One of the 36 at my generational level on my mother’s side – which, I can tell you, spreads so far across the ancestry.com page that it is impossible to print. My mother was one of 7 children–not counting my grandfather’s son from his first marriage. He wasn’t divorced, but was widowed by the flu epidemic of 1919. That son was called a cousin my entire life, but was really my mother’s half-brother and my uncle. That first showed me that families have some flexibility in their bonds. I have no recollection of ever having met him as he lived in upstate NY and we were in Ohio, two states which were further apart in the mid 1900’s than they are today.
Of my mother’s other six siblings only one had moved fairly far away to live, in Atlanta. The rest of us remained clustered in Northeast Ohio. Considering the six families were all within an hour’s drive of one another we generally only saw each other at special occasions: First Communions, wedding showers, which were for the ladies only at that time, the subsequent weddings and baby showers, also ladies only. There were many years during which this was constant getting together, but as we grew older it became less and less often. We were close but not that close.
I can only assume that even though we were geographically near one another’s families, there were other things that needed to be done that kept us apart except on those special occasions. Work, school, home – obligations. I recall more often getting together with the daughters of one of my father’s friends, who we referred to as cousins; and, of course, the kids in the neighborhood. Even within my own household, we were close but not that close. It seemed everyone was busy with their own stuff. I grew up with characters in storybooks as my closest friends.
My father worked 40 plus hours a week at a factory. When he came home at night, we had supper on the table as he walked through the door. Then he would read the paper or a book, watch the news and go to bed. We all had roles, chores, expectations of behavior. My father would take my mother grocery shopping on Saturday mornings at the Acme in our small town, for a long time with all five of us in tow. We were all too young to be left home alone. And believe me, we never made a peep at the store, never begged for snacks while we were there or strayed more than to the end of the aisle in which she was shopping. We knew better.
Growing up we learned of people’s deaths, usually someone much older, by reading the obits in the local paper every morning first thing or from a phone call. It was as though there was an informal phone tree. Someone called two people and they each called two people and they each called two people and so on and so forth until the entire day the wires over the area were buzzing with the news and plans for casseroles and which funeral home would it be at – the one on the lake or that other one.
When word of my cousin’s death came via Facebook, where I am connected to only a small handful of the 36, I hesitated for a moment to comment on his sisters’ profiles. I didn’t feel close enough to make a comment, but it was the expected thing to do, wasn’t it? Should I send a private message instead? I consider us friends, but not close friends. I finally decided to leave the comment that “friends, not close friends” leave. You know the one, “So sorry for your loss!” with the exclamation point for extra sympathetic emphasis. It was just a couple down from my younger brother’s similar comment. That was only the tiniest bit comforting in terms of my choice.
Any other time of the year the few blood relations on my social media page are treated the same as other acquaintances. I like what I like, ignore what I don’t and snooze them for a while during elections. A death puts me in the awkward position of questioning blood vs. chosen family, a debate I have had many times over the years. My chosen family – a very small group of close friends that I have made as an adult, people who actually have taken the time to truly get to know me, people who I know I can go to when in need, they are my family. How strong should the blood bond be considered if it is just that tiny fluid strand and nothing more? If there is no substance to support it, it is not “thicker than water” at all. It is simply an anemic reference.
Yes, I care. I have compassion. I feel for my cousin’s family – his children and their children of whom I have no direct experience. I feel for his sisters and brothers, who, I assume, will miss him. It isn’t the devastating feeling that I had after my mother died. Or, the flip side, relief when my father died. His life and death really taught me that a blood bond does not automatically come with honor or trust. I am somewhere in between for people with whom I have that acquaintance relationship. It is a loss and I do feel that loss.
I believe that you grow up with the family into which you were born or adopted. It’s like an incubator. Some incubators provide more nourishment and protection than others. Some provide more opportunities than others. Some have more warmth than others and develop the deeper friendship/family bond. Often you escape from that incubator to create your own space, your own nourishment, your own opportunities with your own family who will likely view you in the same manner that you have viewed those who came before you. Close but not that close.
I don’t feel I learned to attach as a child and I do not have an answer to the question why. Attachment bonds are one of those things that psychologist and psychiatrists will continue to mull over for centuries. What can ensure that a child will develop a deep, lasting attachment to its family? What can ensure that life experiences will maintain the blood connections over time and space? We were together every minute as children, in a very small house and I am only truly connected to my mother and one of four brothers. How do modern families of today constantly on the road to extra-curricular activities create a knowing, loving bond in their own home let alone with extended relatives? What can keep us together beyond the algorithms of a social media account?
“So sorry for your loss.” I had commented after some thought.
“Your loss, too.” Came the comment back from my cousin. Was it? I wondered, my hand frozen over my mouse, the cursor blinking, demanding a reply. Was it my loss, too?
In that a human being is no longer on this earth, yes, it is everyone’s loss. A deeper personal loss for me, no. I did not attach to my immediate family when I was young and did not attach to my many cousins. I am not feeling an attachment suddenly as an adult. That is not to say that one could not have been created or could not be created now. Anything is possible but we would have to come together as people and make the effort to get to know each other, then, if we became family, I would feel that loss more deeply.