When I look at one particular photo from my childhood, it captures my family perfectly: Disneyland, 1950s, planted on the edge of a circular planter. With one hand, my mother grips the stroller containing the current baby (there always was a new one), staring off to the right. The kids strewn to her side, also sitting, probably for fighting or misbehaving, each of us looking into the distance, not at one another.
Way over on the left, separated from the rest of us, my grandpa. The fedora hat he always wore, even in the California heat, alone, isolated, also staring off. My father, the one behind the camera, trying to capture visually what he always sought emotionally, and never succeeded in finding—the perfect happy American family. I can almost hear him saying, “Okay, everyone, smile,” as he stretched his lips in a grin, pointed his camera and shot.
Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I don’t know if I agree. Nothing in life is that simple, especially as I grow older. I started thinking about families when reading an author who’d entered some hyper-critical observations on his own father—his over-protectiveness, his predictions of failure. I imagine that dad wanted to protect his son. I now know after having children and grandchildren of my own that most of us simply try to do the best we can.
At times, if I imagine one of mine in danger, or hurting, or discouraged, the love I have swells inside me, like yeast doubling, tripling in size until it’s about to choke me. I have to think my parents had the same response, even if I didn’t know then.
There’s much more to the photo of my family than just an image of people together on outing. Separate, isolated, roiling with emotions that at least some of the time were resentful and angry. There’s much more to the stories those people lived: my mother, abandoned by her mother before adolescence; my father, whose first wife died in pregnancy, leaving him with two little girls to raise; several sisters still to face death, poverty, disappointments in their lives; brothers with their own challenges.
I’ve avoided writing about my family for years because it hurt too much. Was my family dysfunctional, or simply normal? Life can’t be happy and smooth all the time. What hurts the most is my inability to change myself in the past, compensate for my shortcomings. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop running away. Time to honor those people for being themselves, doing their best. Acknowledge the closeness we had, what we brought to one another, and, yes, the love we felt. But whether to use memoirs, essays, or fiction, I don’t know yet.