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.
Tony H says
While you may think its falling apart, it has only just begun. Each new step feels like an eternity. You’ll watch friends move away, get married, have families. Some disappear, only to be heard about in the news. Others you may get the occasional message, just enough to say they did. One may even pop up an a email here and there, providing insight to days long lost. We’ve lost the human interaction as a whole, doctors now wheel into the room on a screen and its “normal”. We would rather buy commodities online than go to the store. Shit, you can even buy a used car online and have it delivered to your driveway. Life is so impersonal now its hard to keep a genuine social life if it doesn’t come naturally.
Left to our own devices, we all absolve. I thinks its a way of coping.
I was once told that our age group is the hardest to have a social life as most are raising families. Judging by the sports practice I drive past daily, I think most socializing in our age group is done at these events. Once families have been raised and children moved out, folks tend to socialize again (like those 60 somethings your hanging out with). I feel you Chris, its not easy.
I hope that you find this “new” that you are looking for and am happy to follow along on your journey. Keep the blog going, it’s a great thing.
Chris Wilcox says
Thanks for the thoughts and encouragement, Tony. I hadn’t considered it as a generational phenomenon, but I’m sure there’s something to that. Glad to be able to keep in touch with you a bit, no matter how it happens!
My “heart” became a “?”. I appreciate this and you is what I’m trying to say.
Chris Wilcox says
Thanks, ekw. That’s sweet.
(“?” would also be a suitable response.)
Paul Ritscher says
Having lost my mother last November, my father, who doesn’t hear very well, and readily handed over the phone to her when a family call came in, has stepped up to bridge the gap in our family communications. For him it became a way to connect with us, rather than just getting a condensed report the way he used to. I have to say that I have had some of the best conversations of my life with him since her passing. He even felt the need to make a lengthy plane trip to meet my sister’s grandchildren whom he had never met before because of the large distances we have in our country – not easy for a 93 year-old with a walker. Sometimes you have to realize the need to connect, and that is often necessary to fill the gap left by loved ones who leave us. Don’t wait too long. Time gets faster the older you get.
Chris Wilcox says
Thanks for sharing this, Paul. I’m very sorry to hear of the passing of your mother, but it’s nice to be reminded that a disruption in relationships as they’ve existed can be an opportunity for new closenesses to develop. It’s great that your father has made such effort at an age when most people are quite set in their ways.