Tag Archives: New York

Family of Origin

FamilyOfOrigin

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Odd phrase, that.

You only really hear disgruntled or dispossessed family members say it, about the people they came from biologically and at one point definitively left. It rings with a certain finality, a sense that after leaving their family of origin, people who say “family of origin” were Cain-like wanderers upon the face of the earth.

You don’t hear people saying, “Oh, I just love my family of origin.”

They usually pause right after origin to sneak in a silent clause. “My family of origin,,, was dysfunctional.” Which you get the feeling means something like, “My family of origin [may they rot in hell], was dysfunctional.” You usually don’t hear orphans use it – “My family of origin was killed in a car wreck.” When a tragedy’s involved, people stick with more familiar monikers – “My mom and dad and my sister Shirley.”

Norman-Rockwell-ThanksgivingMy dad has a family of origin. He’s never said those words and I doubt he ever would and he’s hardly a Cain-like-wanderer-upon-the-face-of-the-earth type of guy, but what family was left by the time he took off as a kid was not exactly the white-picket-fence nuclear-family post-war Norman Rockwell dream. I don’t know his family of origin at all, and have heard very little about it over the years.

When my mom came along, he adopted her family. And this is the good news about families of origin – you’re not stuck with them. There’s all kinds of families out there, and so many of them will take you in. And even if you have a good family, you can always use another good one. I feel lucky – people who believed in blessings would say I’m blessed – to have the number and quality of families I call my own. And this is what I was thinking about when I thought about writing this post.

I’ve seen this – we’ve all seen this – countless times, but it never fails to impress me as one of the great things about life and the human spirit. It’s one of the great tropes of storytelling for a reason – taking someone in, being taken in, providing for another, being cared for and supported by others are the things that remind us what matters in life.

So my dad adopted my mom’s family, and was convinced his kids would have something more than a family of origin, and we have. My family of origin is my family. Period. All our weirdness and dysfunction is preeettttty minimal in the grand scheme of things – we get along and talk and say “I love you” and mean it. They’re there for me in everything. (I didn’t always know this, but it was always true.)

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The Great South Bay. Home of the in-laws-to-be.

Come May, I’m marrying into another rock-solid family. I’ve lived with this family before, so they’re family already and it doesn’t seem like a huge deal that I’m officially becoming an in-law, but way back when, when I first started coming around, they took me in immediately, no questions asked. Well, I think maybe a few questions, but they were things like,”Wanna go for a boat ride?” and “Can you use a Sawzall?” After that, golden.

And best of all, of course, is the idea that Erin and I are making our own family, together, for some other little people to one day come from. (And never never never never never leave. Ever.)

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Dino.
Paterfamilias of 35 families.

Anyone who’s been on a serious sports team knows what additional or surrogate families are all about. You do together the hardest things you’ve ever done and (unless you go into the military afterwards) probably the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. You spend an inordinate amount of time together, during most of which you’re exhausted and not at your best and in your sweats and eating. (Especially swimmers – always with the eating.) My UVa swimming family is a lot like a large extended regular family, because I didn’t always like everyone I swam with, but I loved them and would to this day do anything for them. One of my teammates, a guy I really love and respect a lot, told me about a year ago, after listening to me describe the novel I’m writing and my pilgrimage to India and my SoCal routine and a few other things that are just simply outside of his Virginian sports-watching lawyering lifestyle, “You know, Prichard, there’s no real reason we’re friends. If it was’t for swimming, we would never be friends. Never.” Kinda funny, the way he said it, but probably true.

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Jones with a decent turnout.

After college, I worked as a Jones Beach Lifeguard, and let me tell you, that is a crew. Teachers, firemen, artists, cab drivers, musicians, computer programmers, soldiers, businessmen, businesswomen, some cops – some robbers, too, probably – who spend their summers at the beach saving lives. And at Jones Beach, that’s no macho I-save-lives bs posturing. You’re running rescues constantly there. Constantly. People getting scared, getting swept out, getting saved, barely living – sometimes dying. Hundreds of thousands on the beach. (Seriously – there were 275,000 there July 4th, 2005.) Tourists, Long Islanders, Indians in saris, guys from the Bronx in Timberlands – in the ocean, in Tims – who’ve never seen the ocean before. And these lifeguards take care of all of them, and they depend on one another to help them keep the hordes safe. And they’re New Yorkers, so it’s a tough kinda love they share – and not one they frivolously give away. But those guys and gals let me into their world and their hearts and it was an experience and a group of people I’ll never forget.

I’d love to have a creative family, but writers are by and large not very familial people. Well, they might be on their own, but for the most part they’re not looking to hang out with other writers that much. It’s a more or less solitary pursuit, and except for children’s books and TV writing and the odd movie script, writing doesn’t really benefit from collaboration. It’s not like music, so much more than the sum of its parts. There’s so much doing-your-own-thing. What am I gonna do, sit five of us in a room and write a book? That’s why god created Williamsburg coffee houses. To be honest, I have no desire to sit around talking about what I’m working on for more than a couple minutes, tops. We try (especially us Millennials – we can’t even help ourselves) but even communities of writers are hard to come by, let alone families.

I have this other family, too, this strange assemblage of freaks and misfits and ne’er-do-wells  all trying to get our lives back on track and/or keep them there. I’ve met a few of my best friends in this group, and some of the strongest people I’ve ever known. They’re allies in a weird fight that a  lot of people out there don’t even know they’re fighting. In this group in particular there are a lot of people who come from nobody and nowhere. People who have families of origin – families they left or who left them. These people have discovered in this motley crew the family they never had. And that, man, is something to see.

Who’s your family?

What does “family” mean to you?

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Disaster’s Residuals

Five months and a few days ago, Hurricane Sandy hit New York.

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My fiancée is from the South Shore of Long Island, out in Suffolk County, and her sister’s house is still unlivable. Mom’s staying at Grandma’s, her sister husband nieces in Mom’s, and Dad is staying in the top floor of the flooded house to work on it while they wait for the contractor to come lift the house and the FEMA money to pay for it.

Yeah, that’s right, lift the house.

House-Raising

Erin’s dad is also staying at the house “just so there’s someone there.” This phrase is repeated and accepted with a nonchalance that is both common and unsettling. Because what it really means is that even though the updates about looters have long since disappeared from the nightly news, there are still plenty of people who are looking for abandoned houses to rob and even inhabit, and Erin’s dad wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to them. 

This strikes me as incredibly “real,” or at least much, how should I say, grittier than I’m used to. I imagine it’s because I was in the protective bubble of Ventura County for the last three years, and in the oddly surreal bubble of South Orange County for a couple before that, that I’ve forgotten how close so many people – and so many people so close to me – live to the edge of things, and how good we are at accommodating those near-edges. You stay in peaceful suburbia too long and you begin to think of “real life” as something that happens to other people – or even worse, only to people in movies or books – and you begin to think that real-life things must be overtly dramatic, as if you’re waiting for the score to kick in any second.

I know because I grew up in that, untouched by disaster, unscathed by any real danger. I have fond memories of the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

http://www.standeyo.com/NEWS/09_Earth_Changes/090125.SoCal.EQ.pattern.html http://jalcornphoto.photoshelter.com/image/I0000C8MwkmNWmrI http://www.worldofstock.com/stock-photos/a-santa-monica-apartment-building-destroyed-by/PSO1911

I mean that seriously – my memories of that deadly and dramatic disaster are fond.

I thought it was fun to sway around the house at midnight and during the multiple severe aftershocks, to be without power, to miss a couple days of school.

Then I lived in New York, and lifeguarded at Jones Beach with firemen who responded to 9/11, with teachers cooks cops who volunteered so many consistent hours down there that they lost 60% of their lung capacity, with women my age who lost their parents in the attack. They got misty-eyed when they talked too long about it or when I asked the kind of insensitive questions I’m wont to ask, but for the most part they were just going on about their lives, unaccompanied by any sweeping, epic score.

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Bombed-out bird and its replacement.
Parque San Antonio, Medellín, Colombia

Then I lived in Medellín, Colombia, and made friends with people whose entire childhoods were overshadowed by a criminal presence and an outright war in their city’s streets. I saw the remains of bombed sculptures they’ve left in place as reminders and homage to the violence of not-so-long-ago, and heard the stories of curfews and disappearances and fear. But they, too, were just going about their lives again.

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Two things these two groups of people taught me:

people are incredibly resilient, and tragedy breeds humility.

When people have sustained a major loss – of their house, of their loved ones, of their way of life – they interact with the world a little differently. It puts their little grievances in perspective and opens them up to the good things in their lives the rest of us so often and so easily overlook.

This was on display in full force last weekend, at a wedding out in Montauk. Some of those lifeguards were there, as were a bunch of Navy guys, a number of whom are SEALS, all of whom have seen action and a few of whom came back wounded and incomplete.

Several of those lifeguards live – or rather, used to live – down the shore in Long Island, and lost their houses in Sandy. One in particular, a guy who’s been a Seabee for twenty years, is living for the time being with his mom in the house he grew up in, with his wife and their kids, in Queens, and taking his kids an hour each way to school every day. Many aren’t getting any FEMA money because for one reason or another they don’t qualify, so they’re out a house and own little more than a patch of sand with some sticks, and are getting second or third jobs to start clawing their ways out.

Not that I heard any of this from them. What I heard from them was, “Life is great, the kids are great – how are you?! Been too long, we miss you.”

“Isn’t this awesome? What a nice weekend, what a great party.”

“Look at that ocean – beautiful, idnit? Hard to believe it can do so much damage on a day like this.”

These are the people that teach me how to live.

I feel honored and grateful to have them in my life, to have them as examples and advisors and friends.

But, just like they weren’t overly worried the sacrifices they’ve made and been forced to make in their lives, last weekend I wasn’t overly focused on gratitude and appreciation.

It was a party. And sometimes you just gotta put all that heavy stuff to the side, let it go for a few minutes, and just, well, party.

Who  are your heroes? 

How do you get through your disasters?

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