Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Webs of Circumstance

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First, I’d like to say I agree with Cheryl–I’m perfectly willing to believe that Robert’s experience with English teachers was what he says it was, but it was nothing like mine, nor is it anything like what my sons have experienced.  

I do think, though, that she’s misunderstood the difference between Approved and  Unapproved Literature.   Robert isn’t talking about an attitude to what children read, but to what anybody reads.  Approved Literature would be Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, et al.   Unapproved Literature would be “popular” forms like science fiction and the mystery, and people who read UL instead of AL would be looked down on as stupid, ignorant and contemptible.

And, like I said,  I never had English teachers who behaved like this.   Several of mind–right through high school and college–shared my obsession with the detective novel, and I was given the first science fiction I ever read (Stanislaw Lem and Isaac Asimov) by an English professor in college. 

That said, what really struck me about yesterday’s responses was how many people seem to believe it is not only possible to cut oneself loose from one’s past, but desirable to do it.

And yes, I know, I know.  It was a whiny post yesterday.  I figure I get to be whiny when  I want to be, at least if I don’t do it too often.  And these people have been on my mind a lot lately, because my mother is very old and not in very good shape, and eventually there will be a funeral.  And that means that these people will show up.  They will be almost the only people who show up.

And considering what happened at my brother’s funeral–among other things, Pam’s sister Chris  literally picked up her chair and turned its back to me to let me know she wasn’t speaking to me for any reason, all becauase I turned down a couple of invitations to  Easter dinner in the years just after Bill died, which in her minds seems to prove that I am “stuck up” and intent on insulting her–I’m a little nervous about how this is going to work out.

But I also think that the past is something we can never really let go of.   It makes us who we are.   And yes, of course, our memories of it are selective, and can often be wrong.  But it doesn’t change the fact that they are our memories, or that they continue to influence us.

I am connected, in complicated ways, with generation after generation of people on at least two Continents,and those are only the ones I know about.   Their stories were part of my childhood.  They’re part of my adulthood.  They’ve been part of my children’s childhood and will (I hope) be part of their adulthood.

And this is, I think, generally a good thing.  I’ve got nothing against the American love affair with fresh starts and reinventing ourselves, but history is important on a personal level as well as a general one.  I’m interested in the Second World  War on a lot of different levels, not the least of which is the story of what my father and his brother and my mother’s brothers did in it.  

It also seems to me that if we want to understand ourselves, then it makes sense to try to understand the people around us, and especially the people who were closest to us and shaped us the most.  

I thnk that kind of understanding helps to defend us against the worst kind of pseudo-scientific silliness by showing us how people actually behave, instead of how the latest psychological fad says they should behave. 

I think that is, at least in part, the attraction of multi-generational family sagas.  They’re not our earliest form of literature, but they’re pretty damned close.  The myth of the curse of the House of Atreus existed before Greek playwrights started putting it into dramatic form.  A single life can form a narrative arc, but so can the history of a family.

Sometimes I want to write one of those family sagas, not for my mother’s side of the family, but for my father’s.  My father’s mother came to the United States from Samothrace at eighteen.  She did not come, however, as other members of her family had, or other people from her little Greek island.  Instead, she first set herself up in the business of making lace for girls getting married.  When she’d made enough money doing that, she booked herself passage in a stateroom, thank you very much, forget tht nonsense about steerage.  That stateroom was the first time she had ever seen indoor plumbing. 

The story of this woman’s life was a narrative arc, and she was a remarkable woman.  But that story grounds the stories of the lives of her children and grandchildren, and will probably ground the stories of at least some of her great grandchildren.  What she was is inseparable from what we all are.

It also explains why  I’ve got absolutely no patience for the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  In fact, the first time I saw it, I was so offended I was ready to spit.  A Greek parent saying a girl shouldn’t get an education?  What?  I was three years old when my grandmother told me I  was going to college when I grew up, and that if my father wasn’t able to pay for me to go, she would. 

This was a woman who taught herself to read, write, and do damned good bookkeeping in two languages and two alphabets, who walked out of the Great Depression richer than most of the families who had looked down on her as a “greasy foreigner,” but who would never have let them know it.  She thought conspicuous consumption was stupid and letting people know your business was even stupider.  She thought letting people know how smart you were was the stupidest thing yet.   If she’d had as much as a sixth grade education, I’d be surprised–but she’d read Aristotle and Plato (and thought they were both idiots) and later she read the things I wrote on the typewriter she gave me one Christmas, because I wanted to be a writer, and that was the kind of ambition she wanted to encourage.

By the way, I’e got four cousins on my father’s side, and I seem to get along with them incredibly well.  We met a couple of years ago after many years of not seeing each other–none of them lives in this area–and rapport was nearly instantaneous.  There are good webs as well as bad ones.

So I know I shouldn’t whine so much.  And I’m sensible enough to realize that, sucky childhood or not, I have very little to whine about.

But I’m not ready to give up my particular webs of circumstance, good or bad.

Written by janeh

June 5th, 2009 at 7:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Webs of Circumstance'

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  1. You know, I could have sworn what I wrote in that note to Robert made more sense! There should have been something like ‘comics, series books like Nancy Drew etc’ after the first ‘read’ in “some people think children shouldn’t read , but I just like to see them read.” I put angled brackets or whatever they’re called around the insert, and the computer seems to have decided that meant ‘don’t show this’.

    OK. Family. That’s something I’m a bit ambivalent about. Or I’m still working through it, or something. I am part of my family and will be until I die. I do value it. Sort of. It’s part of me, how can I not value it? That doesn’t mean I always like it, any more than I always like …oh, my body. Something that’s part of me, always has been, always will be.

    I don’t actually have anything much to do with any of my cousins, even the ones who used to visit when we were children, but that’s more a function of distance and time than any family quarrels. My family is spread over a good bit of North America, and that’s not unusual today. We no longer get together – closest thing to a get-together for us would have been my grandparents’ deaths, but they were some time back and I think I was the only cousin at both. And most of my aunts and uncles are dead as are some of the relatives who influenced me the most.

    But some of my relatives are still around. And I’m glad that I didn’t simply walk away and totally cut contact, as I thought of doing at times. I find it extremely beneficial…valuable…I don’t know the word – to look at relationships that were once terribly fraught and realize that I’ve gone through that period and been able to understand the relationships through more than my own eyes, and sometimes come to forging a better one.

    This all sounds terribly dramatic. I’m not talking about abuse or neglect or anything like that – just the fairly commonplace situation of a child, adolescent – even an adult – who didn’t always get on with the people around her, and often attributed that to *their* lack of sympathy, understanding, support, etc etc.

    So I’ve outgrown some of my youthful angst and I’m now perfectly happy with all my relatives, except for the ones I never see, of course, and I’m not unhappy with them because I hardly ever think of them.

    Except the process of maintaining the ‘web’ never ends. Your immediate family may well be the only humans alive who know you and who you are and where you came from, because they were there for it all. But they also seem to always know where all your buttons are located and how to push them – perhaps with the best of intentions, of course! And there are responsibilities that go both ways – but sometimes far more one way than the other.

    I used to wonder a lot about why Christianity, which is so centred on the individual’s relationship with God, also placed such a high emphasis on belonging to a church. After all, you can do charity outside a church, and ‘love your neighbour’ applies to non-Christians as well as non-members of your own branch of Christianity. Eventually, I thought that maybe the parish system provided extra practice on proper human relationships because the members are not, like one’s friends, chosen for their appeal to you and not, like co-workers, only requiring limited interaction within certain hours. I haven’t reached any firm conclusion on why Christians are so strongly encouraged to worship in groups, although it does seem a beneficial practice from many points of view, but don’t families work the same way? I might not particularly like or approve of some family members but they’re still family, and I have a strong instinct to maintain relationships with at least the closest of them. This forces me to practice human relationships, even (or especially) in cases where the other party is driving me crazy. And humans have an innate need to exist in relationships to others, so any system that encourages me to strengthen my skills in that area must be helpful to my development as a human being. Being polite to infuriating relatives – and even more, learning to negotiate a relationship that is less infuriating – is a crucial part of life as a human. And that’s why webs of circumstances are so important.


    5 Jun 09 at 8:37 am

  2. The whole family thing is odd. People have expectations for family, and it only really works if the other family members share them.

    I spent an hour last Friday night in the lobby of a building on campus talking to a friend who’d visited her brother over the long Memorial Day weekend. She is a successful person by anyone’s measure: a manager at one of the larger medical device manufacturers, going to school at night, in a long-term, enduring relationship – but she keeps exposing herself to rejection from her self-absorbed brother and his family, simply because they’re her only remaining relatives and she wants a relationship with them.

    She spent some years being actively snubbed by these people when she came out; recently she’s been in contact again, but when she went to visit they simply made it very clear that they were uninterested in her as a person – didn’t ask about her job, her school, her garden, or her partner.

    She’s depressed for a week every time she visits, but she keeps doing it. I keep wondering why, but I keep it to myself and just try to be supportive.

    I’m reasonably close to my brother, and my sister has started wanting to be close to us again after quite a few years of uninvolvement (she was never nasty or anything, just sort of not there).

    But it would never occur to me to put myself through what my friend does. Families are weird.


    5 Jun 09 at 10:51 am

  3. But it can work when others don’t share expectations – when people maintain connection in spite of massive differences. You can have contact reduced to something even more minimal than your friend’s – an annual card, maybe, and a quiet willingness on one side to at least be available when the other is ready. Ant the other extreme is even more fascinating. I was always taught that family comes first; you must always recognize the family connection even if you disagree profoundly with your relatives. But practically speaking, what do you do when conflict arises? There have been many cases over the years in which one family member engages in criminal (or sometimes political) activities the others despise. We had a case here very recently, which from the little I know of it sounds like and example, and which ended with the death of an innocent person. Sometimes the family choose their member over the legal system. Sometimes they stand by their family member, but insist that the law be obeyed, and sometimes they expel the erring member.

    It fascinates me. It must be an agonizing choice. It often breaks families entirely – parents divorce over issues like this.

    I don’t know if your friend’s brother is in this category – I’m thinking of really extreme, life and death cases, and in any case, quite often some family members simply are self-centred, or don’t want to carry out the effort it takes to maintain family connections. It’s often women who make the effort, and men who don’t bother much, in my experience.

    An American poet said something about your family is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in. Absolute acceptance. I keep thinking that there are limits; there have to be. What if your child is an out-of-control criminal who’s just killed someone? Is there a limit to what I can demand of my family? Support in illness and poverty? A roof over my head? To be welcome at the dinner table if I routinely get drunk and throw up on it? What if I’m one of those quiet drunks who shows up at Christmas and sits in the corner? Or if I killed someone driving drunk? Can I go home then? There’s a fascinating play between acceptance and rejection; demand/need and caring.

    (On a lighter note, years ago I heard of a father who disowned his daughter for a marriage he disapproved of. She continued to drop in the family home as if nothing had happened, greeting her silent and disapproving father and, not waiting for a reply, chatting with her mother and sisters. He eventually gave in and reconciled with her.)


    5 Jun 09 at 12:20 pm

  4. Hmm. I never meant to imply that one should forget or dismiss the past. I certainly haven’t. What I have done is forgive my family for being human, and recognize that their faults are as much a part of them as their virtues. When one is adolescent and wrestling with the seeming ignorance and cruelty of life and family, it’s easy to forget that parents and family are people too, because after all, the world centers around one person.

    Recent events have given me the opportunity to see family at its best, when illness and circumstance have meant we all pull together to help one of our own. Being at the hospital, giving money where desperately needed, offering support, etc. This doesn’t mean that next week my mother isn’t going to tell me how I’m living my life all wrong again…but I do know that if I need her she’ll be there, and she knows the same about me.

    So no, I don’t forget the people and events that shaped me, but I do try to make my choices of action and feeling not based on something someone said to me 40 years ago. Often it takes the form of recognizing that knee-jerk reaction, sourcing it in the past, and making a rational choice, rather than an emotional one. Not easy and it took a lot of work and self-examination to even make it possible.

    On the other hand, sometimes one just gets whiny. It’s been known to happen. No big deal.


    5 Jun 09 at 1:00 pm

  5. This has nothing to do with today’s blog but a lot to do with what Jane has written about education.



    6 Jun 09 at 1:00 am

  6. I’m a big sook for stories like that, John. It reminds me of my first year teaching in PNG when getting a kid into then very scarce and highly selective high schools was at least an equivalent achievement. Waiting for the end of year exam results, and the list of those who had been selected to have a very rare chance to go on to higher education and the opportunity to rise to something other than subsistence farming and/or fishing.

    When the stakes are so high, and the implications of success or failure are so widely known, understood and accepted, it places a whole new sort of pressure on everyone – parents, children and teachers.


    6 Jun 09 at 2:47 am

  7. And going way off topic – Mique, I thought ‘sook’ was a local word here – maybe it’s something from the Irish influence so notable in both places? Only here, the primary meaning is a bit different that what I infer from your usage. Someone who is always begging and pleading and crying over something is a ‘big sook’.


    6 Jun 09 at 5:54 am

  8. Same word, same meaning here. I probably misused it. I should have said “sucker” or something of the sort, but didn’t think of it. “Sook” and “crybaby” are pretty much synonymous here.


    6 Jun 09 at 9:32 am

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