THE BLOG
11/21/2014 10:34 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

I Am the Eccentric Relative in My Family

I was trying to answer a question about the "most eccentric" person in my family when I realized that I have assumed that mantle.

My one grandmother was the type who covered the furniture in plastic and served the kids Pepsi Free with sugar-free spearmint drops. She was pretty strict about behavior in her line of sight, but if we went outside to play, we could roam the neighborhood at will. So it was a strange tradeoff between eccentric "old person" behavior and occasional liberation. My other grandma had more age-appropriate snacks but did not permit too much roaming. Her eccentricities were more along the lines of pretending everything was fine.

They were not fine. And that helped me realize that growing up in a family pretending everything was fine and consuming sugar-free candy as a snack at age 8 is part of the reason I am now the eccentric.

The rest of the reasons are pretty straightforward:

I'm a lesbian.

I'm a disabled social worker (which is not a profession anyone thought was a good choice, considering the salary).

I'm opinionated, with a bent far to the left of almost everyone else in my family.

I have multiple dogs and cats.

I have no kids of my own.

I'm the only family member quoted in the newspaper criticizing the Steelers.

I fraternize with rabble-rousers. (That would be you, by the way.)

If someone else breaks the "no politics" rule at a family gathering, I'm all over that with rejoinders and facts and such.

I'm the family genealogist, so I know arcane bits of information about long-dead family members.

I'm critical of the Roman Catholic Church and pretty much all the other churches too.

I talk about taboo topics -- a lot.

I make people in my family feel uncomfortable because I've lifted the veil of secrecy and conformity that keeps the ugly secrets at bay. I do have perfectly fine filters that I can use when appropriate, but I have learned that there are some things that should be talked about and discussed and aired out, at least among the family.

Or at least, there are some things that need to be challenged when they are brought up, right? Things that continue to reverberate among current generations, like addiction. Addiction has a sad grasp on my family, yet it continues to be perceived as a personal failing. The veil of secrecy meant that no one helped the kids, the spouses or others who were living with the addict and the addiction. Just shame, blame and more shame.

The Catholic Church also has a strong grip on my family, though my family has little willingness to discuss the potential impact -- like the child abuse that did touch our family.

Poverty is another stigma. I'm the person who has lived in poverty the most (I think) and actually does not think that makes me a terrible person. Keeping up appearances is not something I ever valued. Some of my family hates poor people even though they happily accept Section 8 subsidies on their property. At one point, they discovered a tenant was actually a member of our extended family, and they were terrible about it. She was the dignified one who refused to gossip about the condition of their rental units. She's a classy woman.

Adoption and blended families are other big secrets. I was disappointed to learn that both my grandmothers had strong opinions on cousins who weren't "to the manor born." They weren't "real" cousins and didn't actually count. When I went to work in foster care, the ramifications of that attitude became startling clear. Then I began to learn about previous generations in my family where some women left widowed had to make hard choices about who raised their kids. It was just all so sad and unnecessarily hurtful. (I do know that "to the manor born" is not quite accurate, but I'm trying to make a point about the ridiculous attitudes.)

I'm certainly no saint. I can be a provocateur for the hell of it, depending on the audience. I was an intern for Rick Santorum. I make mistakes and errors in judgment and bad decisions too. I try to mind the line of taboo topics, but my sense of that line shifts further toward truth and away from pretense as the years go by. I don't say things just to say them but because I don't want to be part of that dynamic of denial and secrecy. I try to be the relative I wish had spoken up when I was a kid coping with all of this.

There's a price to pay for being the eccentric relative. I have 20 first cousins and over 60 second cousins, but I'm friends with maybe five of them on Facebook. Interestingly, I have more friends among my parents' cousins than among my generation. And most of them are people I don't see but every few years. Among my most immediate family, I am definitely eccentric and often shunned.

To be honest, I don't spend a lot of time with my family in general. And to be more honest, I think the main reason is that I'm the crazy-progressive-political relative. But part of it is that I'm a lesbian -- one who doesn't blend and pass quietly as an unmarried lady with a lady roommate who happens to come along to family events. Few people are overtly rude, but the expectation that I not make waves is very strong. Don't talk about it in front of the kids so they don't ask awkward questions -- that sort of thing. The double standard is pretty actively policed with pointed looks, interrupted conversations and invitations that are "lost in the mail."

The holidays do make me a little more sad about this, but not enough to change my behavior. When I was a child, the holidays were the times I often felt most abandoned and lonely precisely because there was no eccentric relative to challenge the dysfunctional status quo.

I'll take eccentric over being the adult complicit in perpetuating the truly harmful behavior.