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Breaking Rank | The Family Myth

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image by Ralph Gibson

I read that in every marriage there are bad years. Every couple has its own unique way of coping – some live as though nothing is different, tread lightly around each other, and keep up the pitter-patter of daily life, the wife dosing herself with Valium or Xanax or any number and combination of pastel psychopharmaceuticals, because it’s all she can do to get by, the husband, medicating himself with work or household chores, burying himself in thick texts. They leave their problems unspoken, but the proverbial elephant is in the room – the kids know it, family members see the strain, friends reach out to both and say they are ‘worried.’ So many Stepford wives, Stepford husbands. Maybe my own love would prefer me this way: docile and quiet, instead of the difficult, messy person that i can be.

He and I could not be more disparate in this way. I would rather scream and cry and rage, horrible and painful as that is, but get it out. The way one drains a festering wound, cleans it. My grandmother holding the rubbing alcohol over my skinned knee and pouring it on and the searing pain of it, but allelujah, it cleared it up and prevented infection. This is the way my family has always been: out there, outspoken, never people to shy away from conflict. Perhaps to a fault, for I remember many times as a child, hearing loud arguments, seeing harmless looking household objects suddenly transformed into missiles as they darted across the room.

Rarely was the airspace clear in our family. You could bet that someone, somewhere, was having some domestic dispute of some kind. I wish this were not so. That, for their sake, not mine, things had been calmer. That my mother had never been pushed down the stairs, that my aunt had never been choked with a phone cord (and then pushed down the stairs), because I don’t believe these are healthy ways to resolve conflict.

My husband’s family, compared to my own, is remarkably placid. I have never heard of any open fights or disputes, though there are disputes and upsets to be sure. I imagine them more to be of a Sicilian vendetta type; words whispered behind the back, people iced out, a few provocative, surly words here and there. I could be wrong, of course, but all families have their own, unique and hurtful ways and to pretend not is to lie. It’s the same as my family – the same problems anyway, for lets face it, we are all very ordinary in our problems. Most marriages, most families, have similar problems. The details may change, but the underlying issues remain remarkably consistent. But in my husband’s family, no one will speak directly to the person they are angry with, or if they do, they do so rarely – they will go through another – a kind of courier, who will talk around the problem, and then relay the message back to the sender. Problems are not resolved in this way, and resentments are lasting. There are exceptions, of course, just as there are in my family.

Not everyone is so true to type, and for those who break rank, I salute them and respect them, for I know first hand how hard it is to break free of the family myth – the roles we are cast into, without choice. How we must become our own person, with our own ideas, and know that it is our responsibility to not continue the dysfunctional bits to the next generation.

Our job, as thinking, responsible people, is to take the best that our parents have to offer and also to learn from their mistakes. We do not have to be like them, and our marriages do not have to be based on some template that we grew up with, no matter how strong the internal mechanism that pushes us to recreate what we know. I know all about this, and probably so do you, but our job is to reject this automatic set of assumptions and think for ourselves. This is why people who whine and blame their parents irritate me. People in their thirties and forties, and I think, Enough already. Get over it. Mommy and Daddy are not to blame for everything. Sure, they may be fucked up, but so are we, and it is no one’s job but our own to get over it and build a life of our own. I do not have to shout and scream or throw things because it is what I have seen (though I admit that I have); these things can’t help but have an affect. The real question, is this; once you recognize it (which takes some insight on your part and a willingness to be really, really honest), do you keep doing it.

I answer with a resounding No.

So later, as he and I made love and draw to each other– for man so cleaveth to his wife – because this is a powerful emotion, I felt my heart move again, and I felt empathy and tenderness toward this man who had hurt me so much. Perhaps I was substituting Willie Nelson’s words for his. Perhaps I wanted to believe he was as sorry as Willie sounds and that i was “always on his mind.” Whatever had enabled this act, it was the first time in months that we were able to cross the rough gulf of water that separates us. We cross the Rio Grande, belong to a new nation, and try to find the name of this strange new land of which we find ourselves sudden citizens. We eke out the territory, and feel our way along the corridors.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

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