The Bizarre, Beautiful Mix That Is Family

Published in The Ferndale Record-Journal, September 23, 2009

Not long ago, on a small stretch of beach along the central Oregon coast, I gathered with the people that have known me the longest.

For a couple of days we caught up with the old and plunged into the new. We welcomed family members we’d never seen before, missed those who couldn’t make the reunion, and reminisced about those who’ve passed away.

I realized then in that little microcosm of time that it would be short-lived. Soon we’d all be back into our daily routines with the people we see every day going about the business of our lives.

I also knew I’d miss the feeling of being under the same sky at the same place with my extended family—people who find my idiosyncrasies endearing, or at the very least entertaining. I knew I’d miss the faces that I see too seldom and the stories that aren’t told often enough.

Ours is a tough crew. Lives have been stormy at times. There’s been disease, death, drugs, and divorce. We are all shapes and colors, ages and persuasions. We are planted, and we travel with the wind. We have snowy white skin or are tattooed and pierced. We’re creaky with age and springy with youth.

Some are liberal, some conservative, some are nowhere near either one of those; some are well traveled and others stay close to home.  Most speak their minds openly, but some don’t.  Many of us will talk until we shouldn’t anymore, and others prefer to not say much at all.

We are also nothing if not hilarious.  Some of the most amusing people I’ve ever known are members of my own family. We are a clever and quick-witted bunch; we also weep easily and probably too often.

There was at least one face I hadn’t seen for 40 years. Really. 40 years. Others I’d seen in the days and weeks before. But those faces are always changing and I guess that means mine is, too.

In the end it didn’t matter how anyone looked. What mattered is that we were there together. And that somewhere in the vapors, my father and mother were rejoicing for the large, warts-and-all family that still gathers in their names.

Over succulent barbecued pork sandwiches and birthday cake for twin 12-year-olds, everyone remembers the good times, forgetting for a moment the riffs and weirdness that can prevail in families, and that have certainly been part of ours.

Watching cousins play in the surf and reconnecting with people I’d known were somewhere in the world, but not sure where, was sweet. No, it was better than sweet. It was delicious.

On the way to our reunion, my children and I stopped by the cemetery to decorate the graves of my parents and my brother.  In a private moment I thanked them again for everything, not the least of which is my crazy, wonderful, collection of family.

They are my people. We belong to each other. Sometimes it’s hard to be part of a family. We’re expected to do things, be engaged, we disappoint others, and our attachment to them gives them the power to break our hearts.

But that bit of time with these folks reminded me how bare my life would be without them, and that despite, maybe because of our foibles, we come together willingly looking for the connection that exists in family.

Pictures and email will hold me until we meet again in three years.

And frankly, that shiny feeling inside of me will, too.

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One Day In September

Published in The Ferndale Record-Journal, September 9, 2009

It might have been sunny that Saturday morning in September of 1980 but I don’t remember for sure.

All I know is that I wanted to get to the hospital so the baby wouldn’t be born on the bathroom floor, like the last one almost was.

This was my third child and the pregnancy had been close to perfect. But I was almost two weeks overdue and was afraid that maybe this baby was never going to come out.

I could picture myself on the front of the National Enquirer under the banner headline, “Terminally Pregnant Woman Discovered in Washington State.”

So when contractions began that morning, I was thrilled. Especially since I was afraid this would be the year I would discover the true meaning of Labor Day. Nope. It was two days before the Monday holiday. My baby would be born on Saturday.

Happiness at the onset of labor can be short-lived. For me, the initial excitement soon gave way to the hard work of birthing—1980s style. It hurts to have a baby. It hurts bad. And this was back in the day when women were compelled to earn a natural childbirth merit badge. No drugs, no epidurals—just the unfettered joy of pushing that baby out into the world. Uh-huh.

Well, this approach had worked fairly well with the two preceding babies. But during this pregnancy, I could tell this little guy was bigger than the others. On top of which, during labor it was discovered he was turned the wrong way. No, this was not going to be easy or joyful. In fact, I remember thinking, “So, this is what it feels like to die during childbirth.”

If someone had offered to hit me over the head with a baseball bat and get that baby out of me, I would have agreed. But instead, I had a kind doctor, a good husband, and nurses who were literal angels of mercy.

People say you forget about the pain and remember only the happiness of having a new baby. I say they’re wrong. I can recreate that overwhelming, impossible feeling in my mind anytime I want, which is almost never, by the way. And I had two more children after him. So, I suppose the sentiment is true.

But what I remember most about that day, of course, is the baby. He was a whopping 10 pounds, with the chubbiest cheeks ever. He was, in my mind, perfection personified.

Last night, on his 29th birthday, I told him over the phone I’d do it all again, that he’d always been a joy, a bright spot in my life. And despite the hardest labor and delivery I can imagine, this is the truth.

In St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bellingham, that day in 1980, another mother had a baby. He was born sick and sometime in the middle of that first night, despite doctors working over him in his little crib, he died. That mother’s sobs will always be carved in my heart. I had my baby and she didn’t.

It’s common for holidays to come with emotion. Sometimes it’s sorrow for those not here anymore, or maybe it’s because we get to share the day with loved ones.

I’m thinking that for most people Labor Day isn’t one of those pivotal days. But this time of year, when the air turns crisp, the spiders come out, and children go back to school, I glaze over a bit.

That day all those years ago, the relentlessness of childbirth, his first squeal, my aching body, the grief of that other young mother, my heart on fire with mommy-love—it all comes flooding back on this day.

And yes, I’d do it all over again. A million times.