Friday, November 5, 2021

"A Walk-On Part in the War"

Many years ago, I was having a late-night discussion with a friend of mine about his twenty-something woes. He did have a tough life, mostly stemming from his parents' divorce. I don't know the details. I never asked. But I do know that he even refused to refer to his father as his father. He'd call him "the biological unit," or something like that. 

Anyway, I was listening to his problems; trying to be a good friend. It was a humid summer night and we'd just finished playing volleyball on a sand court that was a frequent gathering place for our group. Instead of driving home after the match, we sat there in the car and the conversation took late late-night summer route: meandering from topic to topic. Then, he started venting. 

I'm not sure how it happened, but, at some point, he hit me with an observation that I have heard many times since, and that, honestly, I'm a little weary of. He informed me that I had no right to complain about anything because I had a "perfect family."

Well, let's start with the fact that I don't, because no one does. Did (do) I have a great family? Yes. I can't deny that. My Mom and Dad were together and they loved each other (my dad died in 2013) and my sister and I were close with them, if not -- back then -- with each other. (Being separated in age by five years had an effect, I think -- the effect being, I found out years later, me basically ignoring her existence, which is something I still feel guilty about. It was not my intention, but it still was not cool. Ask her how that felt. Perfect? Probably not. So, there was that.) 

Yes, our house was kind of a hub for friends in my young adulthood. All of my friends loved my parents and my parents loved having my friends over for Mom's homemade -- okay, this part was perfect -- pizza and none of them ever felt weird sitting and watching movies, even if my parents hung out with us. My Mom was the kind of person who would invite anyone who was in the house within thirty minutes of the event to stay for dinner -- and people would stay, without hesitation, whether we were in middle school, high school or beyond. They felt welcomed.   

Here's the point where I disappoint you, maybe. I am a pretty open person on this blog, but some things are not for sharing. I realize that saying this puts me at risk of encouraging imaginations to see things as either worse or better than they were, life was never perfect. Sometimes, it downright stank. And my family and myself went through plenty of struggles. Some of them were kind of common and some of them were existentially awful. But I'm not going to share those things. Let it suffice to say that they were there and that neither you nor anyone else knows their extent, which might be a reason to withold over-optimistic positions on the perfection of my family life. 

Granted, we had love and closeness, which is the most important thing. This is what some observers most envy when they have been less fortunate, and I understand that. My sister and I had a foundation and a comfortable base of operations for our explorations of the world and ourselves. I realize many never had that. 

But, it really annoys me when people I know dismiss my family life as a fairytale, because the implication is that I couldn't imagine what it is like to struggle. I realize a lot of "street cred" comes out of having had a miserable childhood, but it is never a thing I have envied, so I'm not feeling guilty or underexperienced for not having been in that position. And I am not accusing people who see my youth as a fairytale of wanting that street cred either; I just want to make it clear that I'm not that shallow. I'm not wishing I had more conventional horror stories to tell, believe me. 

A severely dysfunctional family is not the norm, though I think some want to believe it is so in order to comfort themselves. It is a sad reality that parents can be physically and mentally abusive to the extreme, but it is just not the majority. People whose family life fits into those categories might certainly have seen my family life as a fairytale. I have, however, numerous friends and acquaintences whose families were plenty solid: parents together; close to each other for a lifetime; welcoming and open with their homes and generosity. As a teacher, I see tons of (from my point of view, anyway) solid families. I think people sometimes under-report the successes of the American family. 

None of these families, though, I'm sure, was or is an oasis of neverending joy. I don't want people to envy me and I don't want to try to convince anyone I've had it worse than they did. (So many people are constant players in the "Woe Is Me World Series...") But, to twist Roger Waters's words a tad, though I have never had a "leading role in the cage," I refuse to be denied credit for my "walk-on part in the war."

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