As the holidays approach, I see Facebook posts with crowds of close and extended family members joyfully gathered around the dinner table. To be honest, I scrutinize their photos closely. I would never tell this to my friends, but I look at how many generations are gathered and what people are wearing. Who showed up with slippers on their feet and who hit the mark looking casually chic. Who forced their way to the middle of the photo, and who wants their leg and arm crooked at the end?
My own family photo dumps are with fewer people; usually, it’s just me, my husband, and our two teenage almost-adults. This year, we did our traditional “Rebel Thanksgiving,” where we drove to a local hotel staycation as a family. It’s our way to avoid seeing the empty seats at our table.
We made one last-ditch effort to reconcile with my mother
On our way home, we stop by my mother’s house in another last-resort effort to ask for reunification after five years of separation. She is not expecting us. We don’t know what to expect. My Motto-Of-Commitment for the task? Be Wise and Compassionate.
The rule my husband is to enforce is to not let me cry and not to let me get mad. My mission is to reunite under any circumstances and have my family back in the lives of my kids. They deserve to know my side of the family too. But my children know the lie in this. The truth? My kids have two present and (mostly) stable parents who love them and guide them to the best of their ability. They are surrounded by a spider web-like network of friends and friends who we made family.
My kids are used to this separation. They don’t feel like a part of them is missing. They don’t want to cross oceans for someone who would not cross a stream for them. They are over the drama, the pleading, and the hurt they witness. It’s uncomfortable for them, watching their usually-strong mother begging for inclusion. Again.
I need closure, but my kids do not
They choose to stay in the car in the driveway. They don’t require closure. They are already enough. They will not crash their grandmother’s holiday when they were not invited. My husband and I ring the doorbell. We no longer have a key.
I grew up in the middle of a family of three girls. My parents had one thing in common: they never really wanted to do the hard work of raising kids. My sisters were quiet and unassuming and stayed close to home. I was demanding and stubborn, like my father.
I have always been fascinated by the mystery of missing person cases. Not the violence of it. Not the trauma. I am enticed instead by the search for families. Of the missing. Of the love. The longing. I always look for families. I look at the outpouring of love and concern from the community. That is what draws me in and mesmerizes me — the missing of the missing.
My childhood led me to a career as a Federal Parole Officer
I once heard that our careers are usually the result of our childhood wounds. Mine led me to my career as a Federal Parole Officer. I help and support those who are shunned and hated by society. I get to know my offender’s innermost secrets and, at times, the gruesome truth of their offending. I try to heal myself by reconnecting the lost, the discarded, and the isolated to society.
My job has brought me into contact with some of society’s most feared and dangerous people. Most have redeeming qualities and histories of tragedy and loss. Some do not. One, a revenge-motivated bomber, turned his hatred of women and authority figures into a thirteen-year fixation on me. He routinely remembers to send me detailed threats of his ongoing plans to harm me. I look over my shoulder a lot.
I wait for the helpers. My employers. The police. For the surrounding embrace and concern of my extended family. They never come. Instead, for reasons that I am sure make sense to them, my family of origin decided as a unit that there was a danger in being related to me. Of having me around. My mother and sisters announced that they were cutting off all contact. We had become a liability, and being around us made them feel unsafe. They continued family dinners and celebrations. Those don’t include us any longer.
My family also decided to keep the truth from my aging and ailing father. They informed him they were dis-communicating me because I was causing too much fighting and drama. My mother reluctantly agreed to short annual one-hour visits. My sisters never attended.
Speaking hard truths usually comes easily to me in my work. But in my family’s culture of secrecy and mistruths, I am stunned into silence. I now realize that desperation to be a part of a group that doesn’t want me does not feed my soul. It also hurts my children.
I recently decided to shed my family’s culture of secrecy
Last November, I decided to shed my family culture of silence. My little family unexpectedly showed up at my parent’s doorstep, and I told my dad the truth. He was frail and confused but seemed to understand what they had done. I am at peace with this decision, as my dad passed away six months later. He died knowing that my seat at the dinner table had been empty all this time because of others’ choices.
I was not permitted at my father’s deathbed and was not informed of his passing until after his autopsy. The beautiful obituary my family wrote together without me claimed our family motto to be “Family First — Always.” This was the first I had ever heard of a motto in our family.
So, this is how we found ourselves at my mother’s front door on Thanksgiving Day in 2022. I am convinced this time they will accept us. I made one more attempt to lay my heart on the floor and ask to be included. I begged my mother to connect with her grandchildren, to call and share in their extraordinary lives. Let’s be clear that I fully believe my mom loves my children. She just has never been capable of showing love.
Two hours on the couch, and we have made no progress. My mother is cold, distant, and non-committal. It struck me then that I was trying to move oceans for people that would not even cross a stream for me. In my desperation to right the past, I had abandoned my children, who were now waiting in a car in a driveway on Thanksgiving Day. I turned calmly to my husband of twenty-one years and said, “I have changed my mind.” We got up to leave.
I try to stay wise and compassionate
I want to say that as I was leaving the house, I could maintain my commitment to my newly enlightened self. But being wise and compassionate is still a work in progress for me.
On our way out, we saw the display of photos at the front entrance. Not one was of me or my children. I unraveled. I told my mother that the display was perfectly analogous; there was simply no room for us. I am unloved in a uniquely middle-class way. My always-calm husband suggested that we leave before my grief further spilled out.
We got in the car and drove home. My wise and insightful daughter told me she was proud of me. It was the first time she had seen me have any measure of self-respect in front of my family of origin. It still felt like an ending. It felt cathartic. It felt overwhelmingly tragic.
Sometimes transformations occur over time
I’ll tell my therapist about this. She is one of the helpers. Sometimes transformations are not profound and tragic and sudden. All it may take is the courage to turn to the ones who love and surround you, despite your messiness and quietly say, “I have changed my mind.” I have changed my mind about what I deserve, expect, and will tolerate.
I hope I will accept that my family of origin is not meant to be a part of my life for at least the following few chapters. Perhaps they never will be. But the next move is up to them. I no longer cross oceans for people.
It’s time to let go and move forward. I must figure out where I do and don’t belong. And maybe, just maybe, I will make my own family motto, “Family First – Always.” But I will make sure my children believe it.
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