During the 1990s, my grandparents bought a little plot of agricultural land and turned a warehouse into what they called their “ranch,” which was mostly a warehouse with a kitchen, three refrigerators, some seating areas, long banquet-style tables, and all the walls decked out in western decor. There was a bed in a little nook by the bathroom for rare overnights, but the facility’s principal use was as a site for family parties. It was Grandma’s dream come true. For years, we held all our family parties there; I saw uncles, aunts, cousins I’d never see otherwise, even though we all lived in the same town. When there weren’t enough actual holidays for her liking, Grandma would invent reasons to invite the whole family out to the ranch for a party.
Grandma got sick. The first I learned something was amiss was at a Fourth of July party, when I found her sitting outside in the van instead of mingling with everyone inside. I don’t remember how much was communicated to me at that time about what was going on. But the sickness moved fast. Grandma was gone by September. And with that also went (for me, at least) the ranch parties, and the whole experience of family on my Dad’s side. I’d still exchange greeting cards with Grandpa (who soon recoupled) and cross paths with a cousin on occasion, but the feeling of a big family gathered around something had gone. We’d lost our center.
It was amazing to me that something that seemed so solid could fall apart so quickly, and equally amazing to me that I’d never noticed how much of the experience of family on my Dad’s side had been one person’s creation.
Left to our own devices, we dissolved.
I don’t know what the skill or personality trait is that makes some people great connectors of others, capable of uniting dissimilar individuals and smoothing over any interpersonal rough patches to create an experience of “us.”
I only know that I don’t possess it, and I admire those who do.
I’m more likely to find myself carried on the winds of personalities stronger than mine. If we’re coming together, I’ll come together. If we’re losing touch, I’ll lose touch. I’ll be as nice as I can be to the people in front of me, but as far as how they get there? Enacting grander visions eludes me. Bringing and keeping people together eludes me. Forging friendships eludes me. Achieving reconciliation eludes me.
My vision of the world is not one in which I exercise great agency. It’s one in which I persist, doggedly, in doing what little I can with what’s in front of me.
This is relevant now because I find many of the systems of association I’ve benefited from, but not built, on the verge of collapse. I haven’t seen my Dad’s side of the family since Grandma’s service in 2004. My Mom’s side of the family is built around Grandma, age 89, with most family gatherings generously hosted by eldest daughter, age 70. All of my closest confidants are older than 60. Relations with my brothers, a built-in generational cohort, range from distant-but-pleasant to deeply fractured. Any friends I had in my college (or high school) days I haven’t seen in well over a decade.
Would this concavity ordinarily be filled by starting a family of one’s own? I haven’t done that, nor do I have an eye toward doing so.
I have even let my writing here, which built a kind of community, fall by the wayside in recent months.
Looking ahead, I can see a day when, if things continue apace, I will lead a remarkably unpeopled life. I’m living what most would probably consider to be a minimally peopled life as it is, so moving in the direction of fewer people would not be ideal.
In the absence of close associations, I try to maintain a kind of fellow feeling for all living beings. I treat others with respect, pick up litter when I see it, extend the benefit of the doubt to people who cut me off in traffic, make others laugh as I’m able, and so on. I’m about as prosocial as a minimally sociable person can be.
But I can easily foresee a time when, if I don’t figure out how to build and maintain new associations of my own choosing, there won’t be anything left of what I started with in the first half of my life to carry me through the second. The ground is slipping out from under my feet, and new ground can only be gained by taking steps I’ve never taken. As my life empties, I’ll need to fill it with… something. Which will require choosing something. Making something happen. Claiming some agency.
I don’t know what that will look like, exactly, but I’ll do my best to bring you along as I figure it out.