The central mystery of my life hasn't been Is There a God? Or What Is The Meaning of Life? Instead it's been: What's Wrong with My Family? As a child on the playground, I'd recite my family's history in quick succession, my first stab at creating order of the chaos: "Both my grandmothers were married three times, my mother's been married three times, my father's been married four times, my stepfather's been married three times." If I'd known it then, I could have added my great grandparents to the list. But I didn't know that and I didn't know my sisters would be become part of that list. And, I didn't know how I too would inherit the family restlessness.
But is it restlessness? Is it genetic? Nature? Nurture? Chemical? These are the questions that have shaped my life, my choices, even my work, for the central theme in my writing has always been---even my first schlocky Freshman short story---why can't we stay together?
My first theories, developed in the 'tween years, were woven from bits of family lore. I thought then that we were "free spirits." And there was evidence to support that. My father bought a cattle ranch in Mexico in the early 60's and moved there with wife #3 and my sister even though he spoke no Spanish and barely knew his way around a cow. My mother had the gumption to move from Canada to California in 1950 with just her two year old daughter and a few hundred dollars. My grandmother lived alone in a pink stucco California bungalow where she made Picasso-like paintings and wove rugs and wall hangings out of everything imaginable including dog fur. "That's Samoyed," she'd told me with pride when I pointed to particularly soft strip running across her giant loom.
I'd held onto the free spirit theory for years. It was a benign sort of explanation for all this divorcing, making something almost noble out of what would take me decades to realize was actually very painful. The switch came a few years after my father joined AA. He was the only person in my family to have claimed the word alcoholism for himself,but because I grew up with my mother, it seemed as if his disease were partitioned off from me and my side of the family. But, the seed of knowledge was planted.
A few years later in therapy, I began to see that alcoholism was a river that ran through my family. And a few years later--it seems almost impossible that it would take that long to make this connection--I began to connect the divorce dot to the alcoholism dot. Ah, they went together. So, as long as I didn't drink or drink excessively or marry an alcoholic, I'd be safe, right? I could avoid the family curse.
But then, many more years later, I too was getting a divorce. I'd swerved away from the alcoholism wreckage, but giving the family restlessness one name--alcoholism--had in some ways blinded me to the greater issue. One of the many things I liked about my former husband--and still like--is that he doesn't drink. In my lizard brain, not drinking meant peace on earth and goodwill to man. It hadn't occurred to me that we'd be undone by an addiction of another stripe. That poker playing could bring a family to its knees.
It also hadn't occurred to me that despite therapy, despite trying, despite a certain type of hyper vigilance, I still couldn't see my part in my relationships. I still couldn't see how I accepted things that would cause most people to turn heel, that I felt most alive when I was needed--desperately needed, how frightened I was of ordinary family life.
Do I see it now? I'm not sure. I think I do. I hope so.
You can read more about my family's divorce legacy in How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed.
You can read more from me on my blog, Writing is My Drink.