“Mom, do you have a pencil and paper I can have?” my daughter, Haley asked as we watched the ring-tailed lemurs leap from tree to tree at the San Francisco Zoo. “I need to write something down.”
Our vacation this year — part sightseeing, part family reunion — took us on a 5,000-mile adventure that included 4 flights, 3 hotels, 2 rental cars and 1 beach house. My husband, Steven and I took our two youngest, Sydney, 14, and Haley, 10, braving airport security and mass transit to do something we love: travel.
I scrounged in my purse, finding a pen and a grocery receipt, and handed them to Haley then watched as she walked over to a placard and started writing. Peering over her shoulder I read:
We are burnt by the fire we have startedProverb from Madagascar
Madagascar’s deforestation, largely the result of slash and burn agriculture, is resulting in the rapid destruction of the lemurs’ habitat and has rendered the primates endangered.
Intrigued, I asked, “Why do you want to write this down, sweetie?”
She didn’t hesitate, “This is a good thing to remember because when you make bad choices you’ll always be affected by it. You’ll always get consequences.”
What goes around comes around
When I was growing up, my mother was fond of saying, “What goes around comes around,” something I didn’t quite understand then. Looks like my daughter gets it already. Smart girl.
We drove up the California/Oregon coast to join my mom’s side of the family for a rare reunion. There are three sisters in her generation; all single and living alone. In preparation for this momentous occasion, they went through albums and storage boxes of old photographs and sent me scads of them, some faded and torn, dating back more than a hundred years. I sifted through them, selecting the best ones to create a slideshow.
For hours I worked, mesmerized by the sepia tones and black and white images of decades past and awed by uncanny family resemblances. My great-grandfather in his 20s looked shockingly like my brother at the same age; a genetic blueprint stamped across time. The photos held the energetic charge of ancestry brought to life in cryptic storytelling. At 50, for the first time I felt deep stirrings, sensing my lineage as a gossamer web linking me to strangers. As though the double helices in my DNA vibrated in recognition of my people.
The similarities are not only physical, but in what we’ve chosen to do. I come from a long line of artists, musicians, writers and teachers, from brilliant minds. We are creative souls and passionate innovators. Yet the pedigree is rife, too, with mental illness, addiction and abuse. While the photos tell tales of triumph over loss, inspiring hope, behind the camera lie stories of pain and suffering, often at the hands of loved ones. I cannot deny the dark reality of my origins, but bringing the past into the light to examine allows me to see where I come from. And moreover, who I’ve become in spite of it. Or perhaps because of it.
The double helices in my DNA vibrated
Our family reunion provided the perfect opportunity to take a closer look. A kaleidoscope of personalities and interactions, the few days spent with some of the people I love most on this planet can best be described as . . . intense. Being together after many years apart was indescribably sweet and heartwarming. The conversations and tender reflections, just as I’d envisioned, elevated and strengthened our bonds. But patterns springing from old injuries triggered strident reactions. The tension born of control issues and power struggles — dynamics all too familiar — began to threaten the happy tone of our gathering.
At one point, I ran away. To the beach. I found a trail and followed it up a mountain, working out my thoughts to the pounding of my heart. Pumping my legs and lungs, I breathed in the cool air. By the time I emerged on a steep cliff overlooking the vastness of the ocean I’d gained perspective. In front of me was the big picture. Gorgeous waves sprayed white foam as they crashed against jagged rocks below, the sound, both powerful and calming at once. The lush pines growing along the sheered edge reminded me of the place Mom and I scattered my Grammy’s ashes.
Freedom in compassion
In solitude I stood. The wind whipped at my hair. My apprehensions lifted, dissolving, blowing out to sea. I was left with a peaceful quietude and a clear mind so I could hear the voice that said, “Separate the worth of those you love from the way they behave.” Here was my salvation: In my compassion for my family I found freedom for myself.
Terri Cole, licensed psychotherapist says, “When you analyze the family belief system, you can begin to see that much of what you experience as ‘the way it is’ is just the way it was in your family of origin and that you can choose a different way of seeing yourself and your potential. Once you understand how it was, you can decide how you want it to be.”
What goes around comes around, but does that mean history must repeat itself? I think not. “When you know better, you do better,” said Maya Angelou. Can I put the fire out and stop this generation from burning the next? The answer is a resounding yes.
Though conflict was inevitable, the visit was also interspersed with priceless moments to cherish: combing the tide pools and watching the kids play in the waves, making breakfast side by side, singing with a guitar around the campfire. And the highlight, dimming the lights to take in the slideshow. My intention was not to glorify the past and hide its shadowy secrets, but to illuminate that which holds us together amidst our brokenness. It was my gift, a love letter to my family.
A love letter to my family
Years of memories passed across the screen; lifetimes told in pictures. In a cacophony of noise we watched. Shouts of recognition and celebration. Squeals of delight. And tears of mourning and regret. We reached out and held hands. We held each other. We forgave each other.
Like I said, intense. But, profound. And pivotal. Because the cycle is broken with my generation. We are no longer burned by the fire that was started ages ago and our children will never know the scars our parents bore.
Back in the Bay area, after our trip to the zoo, my little family enjoyed dinner at a local bar and grill, comfortably seated in a high-backed wooden booth. Haley finished first and got squirrely. She needed to use the restroom, but had kicked off her shoes. She dove down and her denim-clad bottom piked above the table. Her bare feet followed, their blackened soles flailing in my face. Before I could stop her crawling on the floor, she cracked Steven’s shin with her head.
Bad choices get consequences
“Ouch!” he startled, rubbing his leg.
“Haley, get up here, now!” I said peering under the tablecloth.
She popped up, breathless. “But I had to get my shoes!”
Steven lowered his chin to level his best “listen-to-me” look at her. “This behavior is not okay. Where are your manners? We take you out to a nice restaurant and this is how you act?”
She listened, taking her licks. At that point, living out of suitcases and eating in restaurants was taking a toll on us all.
“Tomorrow night, you’re having a burrito from the gas station!” he finished, exasperated.
I looked at her repentant little face, thinking he might actually be getting through to her.
“Come on, I’ll take you to the bathroom,” I said, sliding out of the booth.
As we walked down the hallway, hand in hand, I reminded her of the quote she’d copied earlier and her own interpretation, when you make bad choices, you’ll always get consequences.
She leaned in conspiratorially and with an expression that said “the joke is on Dad,” she whispered. “They don’t even have burritos at the gas station!”