The Coming Apart of an American Family

NOTE: There’s a fair bit of navel-gazing in this post, folks, so if you’re not into that, I’d probably wait for another day.

There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind
— Bruce Springsteen, “Independence Day”

To say that my father and I have had a strained relationship is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground. It understates the situation more than a little bit and doesn’t give it the nuance intra-family strife warrants. And I don’t know that what my father and I have faced is really unique or even rare; there are countless stories in virtually every medium throughout history about the struggles fathers and sons have faced.

So why am I surprised at the way things have gone with my father in the wake of my mother’s passing more than six months ago? The truth is: I’m not. But I am surprised at the depths we’ve reached. And it is those depths that have made me realize just how much my mother was the glue that held our family together.

How things were before I was born, I obviously have no idea. And the truth of the matter is that even in the years after I became (somewhat) conscious, I don’t really know what kind of relationship my mother and father had. In the wake of her passing I saw photos of the two of them when they were younger, photos where the joy — and dare I say it: love? — just leaps off their faces and out of the images. And they were together for 47-plus years with nary a separation.

But I can remember some tough times too, including the trip we took — my mother and we three kids — to Nova Scotia sometime in the mid-’70s, a trip my father refused to go on at the last minute because he didn’t like some woman who was going along with us. I can remember things being bad enough one year when Mom came to pick me up at prep school that I told her I wouldn’t blame her if she left (and it was real enough that I can still vividly picture the scene: the location, the weather, everything). And heaven knows I didn’t see a whole lot of passion or open displays of love between them. Hell, until he was laid up in the hospital last fall, I’d never heard my father utter the word “love” about anything — his wife, his kids, the weather, a new car, the Red Sox.

So it was always a shock to me when Mom would fiercely defend both my father and their relationship against charges of lacking love and passion. Several years ago, after I’d had another dust-up with my father, I wrote a letter calling him out on a lot of the injustices I felt he’d done, and continued to do, to his family. I sent it to my mother first so she wouldn’t get blindsided. She and I discussed the things in the letter and she never disputed any of them, but still she asked me not to send it, saying that she’d continue to work on Dad in her own way. I didn’t send the letter, though I found it on the desktop of her computer last year.

And continue working in her own way she did. Mom had her own coping mechanisms throughout her life and she used them to, in Churchill’s words, keep calm and carry on. Clearly, her work and her dedication to her career were her primary methods for staying sane and happy, particularly after all of her children had moved out. In her later years it was spending her time on the third floor of the Plum Island house, trading emails with friends and looking out over the ocean. But when needed, she always ventured down to the main areas of the home and into the lives of everyone in her family, always managing to keep the peace between several very headstrong individuals. Somehow, between the ocean view and the serenity and the games of computer solitaire and the emails with friends, she found enough calm amid the tumult of our family to radiate it outward and keep us all from coming to blows and even got us to coexist.

But now, with that glue in our lives gone, what Mom left behind seems to be coming apart. My father again provoked a letter out of me, and this time, with no Mom to filter the message, I delivered it. It exacerbated the already strained relationship my father and I had, to the point where at the time of this writing we haven’t really spoken in more than three weeks. Mom may have been able to coexist with him in that house in such a situation but I can’t and won’t, so I’ve now begun three weeks of travel before I get out for good. My brother is in the midst of apparently profound financial and professional challenges and his already sporadic communication has dwindled. My sister and her family had to sell their home in Los Angeles not long after Mom died and are renting again. And I haven’t had a steady “normal” job in three years and counting.

More importantly, there’s nothing left to make us want to be together. Sure, we all love Plum Island, but it never really was the beach that drew us back there. It was Mom. Her grace and calm and love made Plum Island the place that it is. And she made my father’s self-centered stubbornness bearable. So with Mom’s passing, our family seems to be splintering outward, hopefully like the stellar material formed in a supernova spins out to create new galaxies and stars and life, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see about that.

I remember once asking my mother what it felt like to be the pinnacle of our family tree. She scoffed at the notion, always believing that her children and grandchildren and beyond would do great things. But think about it: she and my father were born and raised in the Great Depression. They accomplished and achieved so much in their time on this planet, way more than anything their children have done, without the blessing of a comfortable upbringing like the one my siblings and I enjoyed. And all three of us kids are well into middle age, so it’s not like we can reinvent ourselves at this point and break new ground. We’re pretty much rolling along with what we have.

One thing, the biggest thing, we no longer have is that quietly driving force, that gravity, that love that was our mother. Entropy has replaced gravity.

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