Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Far from family

When my parents came out this past holiday lull between Christmas and New Year's, my lovely wife and I managed to sneak out to see the movie Michael Clayton, which was fantastic. (Congrats, Tilda Swinton, on your oscar.) The theater we saw it in sits in our old West Village neighborhood and is one that we used to go to often two kids ago. Along with a movie, then, just the two of us had a chance to remember and not miss the life we had in New York before Q and The Boy essentially reset our memories.

Counting Michael Clayton, we’ve seen roughly three movies in the theater since summer 2003 (including Cars, which probably shouldn’t count for present purposes). This isn’t all that difficult to explain:  We work pretty hard.  During the week we get home in time only to ask what the kids had for dinner (my wife coming home at least a half hour after I do), and I usually leave before they rise. It's no surprise, then, that we devote weekends to the kids and that nights after they finally give in to sleep tend to involve a lot of low-impact activities.  Like sitting.  And since our families are either half way or all the way across the country from us, we haven’t often had the chance to lean on them to distribute the load that usually leans on us.

Still, a little relief from parenting now and then is the least interesting part of having relatives close by.  After all, family don’t merely watch the kids, they get to see them, and vice versa.  I often wish we were closer to everyone so that Q and The Boy could get to know their grandparents, their Ong and Ba Ngoai, their aunts and uncles and cousins in some way similar to how they’ve come to know my lovely wife and me. Which is to say thoroughly and up close. We talk a lot about family in our house, and goodness knows we take and look at lots of pictures of everyone. (According to that little gray bar at the bottom of iPhoto, we’ve crossed the 19,000 mark in our digital photo collection alone.) And there are weekly phone calls, photos sent out by my wife every other week, cards, and twice-yearly visits. But Q and The Boy don’t help wrench stumps from the ground with a chain and a Jeep or feed koi or craft springrolls or bait hooks for the delectability of channel catfish. Q and The Boy likewise have large, quick personalities that (we think, anyway) sometimes need to be seen to be believed.  And they also need to be reminded who they could be by someone other than us.  Missing, then, are the kind of experiences useful for building a rich story of family.  Some stories are best heard straight from their tellers.

This is all true, and I haven’t stopped wishing that it were otherwise for them. But I was also struck by something else when my parents visited this December.  When any family visit, we tend to remind ourselves that we live in New York by going out to a fancy-ish restaurant and indulging our way down its menu. We did that with my parents this time, too, a nice steak place in Tribeca. The meal was memorable, as expected, but not as memorable as the conversation that passed over the broad plates.  I found myself missing my parents as adults, thinking about how much I’d like to know my family as they are now, and how much they could still know of me as I am now. I’ve been pretty far away from them for many years now and have (more or less) found a home and made my way in New York.  I have my own family with its own ruts and rules.  Over the years, I’ve acquired my own shelf of theories and explanations, revisions of and replacements for many of the ones they started me off with. I’d like to know how they’ve changed, too.  And much has simply happened to so many of us over the past few years — both good and bad — and it’s hard not to feel remote and removed.

We’ve talked about this, my wife and I, and I know she feels as I do about her mother and father, sisters and brother.  And though she and I have been a part of each other’s family for over fifteen years now, I still feel like I’m just beginning to know them in many respects.  (Internet messaging chats with my younger sister-in-law (among other things) keep us closer; still, I have to think that it’s not quite as good as hearing first hand the laughs each of us trigger in the other.)  When out to California for family visits, we strive to find children-free time with my wife’s parents and siblings, but things (and children) being what they are, we usually end up talking out the few hours left after all the kids have gone down for the night. (This is also officially a shame given that my wife’s parents live in wine country.)  We find ourselves wanting more time to catch up on months worth of living.

Funny thing is, the more I thought about it, what’s allowed us to miss them in this way, to want to know them again now, is the years and miles between us. As Stanley Cavell nicely puts it, "I must disappear in order that the search for myself be successful."  Without leaving, it would be too easy to sit in the same chair at the table, to sleep in the same room — to be too familiar, as it were.

I’d like to think that I more or less succeeded in my search — or that I’m at least looking in the right places.  It’d be nice to hear a little about and see where others who are so close to us came back from.  As always, I suppose, it’s scaling the distance that proves the hardest part.  And one mile never equals one mile.

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