posted by Amy on Jun 3
I just got back from a trip to Ireland. When I landed at Shannon Airport on May 18 I noticed they were promoting something called The Gathering Ireland 2013. It’s a year-long celebration of the Irish, framed as outreach to the 70 million people worldwide who are of Irish heritage.
I first encountered the term “Irish Diaspora” in a book I saw on the sale rack at a bookstore. The author said that there are certain traits and characteristics of Irish people that persist down through generations, even with no contact with the Old Country. I saw people in Ireland who looked just like people I know back home. And I could pass for Irish, at least until I open my mouth. At one pub a woman who was sharing our table as we listened to a father and son play and sing told me she thought I was the boy’s mother. In addition to physical types, well-known Irish characteristics, especially musicality and “the gift of gab,” appear in the Irish diaspora worldwide.
That kind of relatedness is even stronger in families. When my uncle Bob died I went to Austin for the memorial service. Afterwards my aunt (my father’s sister), her sons, and I went out for a drink. As we were laughing and talking, the youngest one said, “You fit right into this family.” I reminded him that I was family.
Most people choose spouses who are like the people who raised them. The habits of mind, mannerisms, gestures, attitudes and values of siblings are all shaped in the same nature/nurture nexus. So their children will have a great deal in common with their first cousins, whether they ever knew each other or not. About 14 years ago I took my son Ben to California for the wedding of my brother’s stepdaughter Lisa. Ben enjoyed hanging out with his cousins, and found they had much in common.
When I found out Ross was seriously ill I contacted as many family members as I had email addresses for, and asked them to reach out to him. I also asked them to pass the information on to others, and to give me email addresses and mailing addresses for the people whose information I didn’t have. Then when I found out he had died I decided we’d do some kind of memorial gathering on June 8. I sent everyone a “save the date” email on April 27, and asked them let others know about the gathering.
Wednesday morning I’m going to fly to Denver. On Thursday I’m renting a minivan, and six other people will join me in a road trip to Sonoma County. Saturday we’re going to spend the day at a lake, eating, talking, playing near the water, and whatever else happens. Honestly I’m a little nervous about it. This is what I said about it in a group email that I sent on June 1:
While I intend it to be primarily for fun, fellowship, and creating new, happy memories and new bonds among living family members, it’s also meant to be a send-off for Ross. He loved music, the outdoors, cookouts, joking and laughing, and water. I want to have some kind of ceremony at the lakeshore after dark, perhaps with luminaria, candles, or just flashlights. I still like the idea of a Viking ship model to which we can set fire, but I’m not sure where I’ll get one before I leave Boston Wednesday morning. Origami cranes and other animals might be nice. Paper airplanes. Or a little temporary mausoleum made of sand, to which we each add a special rock. Please bring something that reflects your love for our family—a poem, a story, or some kind of talisman, or just love in general—love of life, or appreciation for the gift of life.
As usual, I asked that recipients forward the email. This time I named specific people to whom I wanted it sent. I ended the email by saying, “I know you might be thinking this is just too awkward. You’ve never met most of the people on the distribution list, let alone the ones I named in the preceding paragraph. Relax. You’d be amazed how much we have in common just because we are related. It’ll be a blast. We’ll be talking about it for years.”
The next morning I woke up to an email from Aunt Harriet, my mother’s eldest sister, that said:
If I didn’t “know better”, I’d say this shindig is designed, in part, to assuage guilty consciences. But – I’d never say it!
Ken’s comment: Under NO circumstances would he attend an event of this nature, for an unknown relative. His opinion pretty much reflects mine. Which must mean we raised him properly.
(You’ll get some preaching practice – which probably is good.)
Oh yes, be sure to avoid salmonella poisoning.
(You have my permission to read the above contribution, should you wish to do so.)
Have “fun . . . “
I’ll snail mail your letter and this response to Laura, who’ll be upset that I voiced my rude opinion.
(Ken is her son, the eldest of my generation on the Gagos side, and Laura is the third-eldest sister, who was always one of my favorite aunts, and with whom I communicate frequently.)
That’s Harriet for you. When I told her (in a group email) that I had been diagnosed with cancer she responded, not with sympathy or compassion or interest about my treatment or prognosis, but with the observation that I was sure to get chemobrain and the doctors wouldn’t warn me about that.
My mother told me Harriet had always walked on the other side of the street from her parents and three sisters. She was the most Armenian-looking of the four sisters, short and swarthy with a prominent, hooked nose. Mom once told me that she (Mom) had finally come to understand that Harriet had a massive inferiority complex. Mom might have been trying to help me understand my own sister, but it was also a partial explanation for why she and Harriet had a strained, distant relationship.
Here’s how I answered Harriet’s email:
Dear Aunt Harriet,
You and Ross have a lot in common; both keeping yourselves aloof from the rest of the family. I’ve seen you a total of twice in my 59 years on this planet. I’ve seen your son once. The first time I saw you it was just your head poking out your front door, chatting with my mom while we were in California visiting relatives. You didn’t come over to the car to greet us, or invite us in after our long trip. Maybe you and he share some kind of mutant family-despising gene.
Tell me more. Why do you suppose anyone would have a guilty conscience about Ross? And what makes you think I’m going to preach?
You and your well-brought-up offspring have fun too, Auntie.
I don’t blame Harriet for being the way she is. She can’t help it. As another cherished aunt often says, people like Harriet are “more to be pitied than scorned.” But she’s wrong about Ross being unknown. He’s permanently a member of the “McElheny/Gagos Family Diaspora,” and he’s known and loved. Maybe she’s the one with the guilty conscience.
It does not appear to have crossed her mind that my own health status is a powerful motivator here. I am living on borrowed time. (We all are, of course. Cancer just makes it harder for me to forget that fact.) Right now I have the energy and strength to organize a gathering of this nature, so I’m doing it. I want to spread as much love and light as I can before I die. I want to meet my niece and nephew, and hug them and laugh with them. I want to do all I can to get the Millennials in our family together.
A family is an ongoing story, with a past, a present, and a future. Even if there has been abuse, rage, bitterness, abandonment and dysfunction in the past, the story can begin to be more about love and hope and solidarity. There’s no need to deny anything, or sugarcoat, or erase anything that happened in the past. It just needs to be put in context. Ross belongs to us, despite his attempts to leave and his wife’s attempts to keep him to herself. And just as a human being’s character changes over time, getting worse or better depending on the choices that are made and the habits that are formed or broken, the character of a family can change too. All we have to do is choose life.