Rebuilding my village


October 21, 2009 by 8junebugs

The anniversary of Mom’s death is approaching, and I find myself in a very contemplative and emotional place most of the time. As the duties of managing the estate wind down, I find that “moving forward” isn’t quite what I thought it would be.

It’s better, mostly. Instead of growing pains, it feels more like self-inflicted turbulence upon re-entry.

I thought I had it all figured out. I had this experience of family that I thought was complete. What I didn’t realize was that, although my experience of family wasn’t exactly wrong, it had been manipulated. It was incomplete, and a lot of what I felt growing up resulted from that incompleteness.

See, Mom wanted to be the favorite. (So did her mother, I’ve been told, and where else do we learn how to be?) She wanted to be the favorite child, the favorite sister, the favorite parent, the favorite aunt. She liked being the cool mom, the fun mom, and wanting to be that extended to wanting her side of the family to be viewed that way, as well.

Proximity helped. When KidBrother and I and all of our cousins were little, our two sets of grandparents lived three miles apart on one dirt road. I remember things being more even then — most of the trips to Lake Dunmore (Branbury Beach) were with Mom’s family, but there were plenty of weekend afternoons and family dinners at Memere and Pepere’s farm.

(I didn’t know this until I found another baby book, but my first 4-word sentence was “Want to ride Cleo.” Cleo and Ginger were the horses-in-residence at the farm, the long-time companions of Uncle Paul and Aunt Sue.)

Then Pepere died and Memere moved into town, and the whole family started to spread out a bit. Mom built up the shop and worked long hours, and we built the pool and spent more time in that than at the lake. By virtue of being nearby, the Whipples were always around more often.

And then we moved, too…and Mom moved back, eventually for good. I can recognize why, when we all came back to visit from California, she would want to spend as much time as possible with her side of the family. Expanding on that, “more time with her side of the family” became more time with her when I was the only one still living out of state.

It wasn’t that she campaigned actively against the Gingras side. She just…supported affection for her family and encouraged the idea that they were the fun ones, the ones who knew us best, the ones who were comfortable and accepting. She encouraged us to visit Memere, but only out of obligation: “She’s your grandmother.” It was a chore, that way, and she would magnanimously let us off the hook from it sometimes, even though we were adults.

I don’t know how much of that was deliberate, and it doesn’t really matter now.

I’m realizing now, though — or remembering — how much fun Dad’s side of the family was when I was a kid, and why.

The “why” is what bothers me.

I’ve always said that the reason I stayed in California, the reason I fought to stay out there even as Mom was trying to get us to go back to Vermont, is that I was comfortable being myself out there. In Vermont, around Mom’s family, I tended to be the only one who liked school (loved it, really), who would rather read than play outdoors.  I wasn’t afraid of tests and I generally did my homework. I latched onto the first computer that showed up in the classroom.

I was just…different. Nerdy.

It wasn’t just in Mom’s family. At sixth grade graduation, each person in my class of 20 got a pin labeling us for how we’d been known. Some of the boys got “Leader.” Some got “Athlete,” I think. Jenny Roberts got “Artist” (which…duh).

I got “Bookworm.”

It’s not like it wasn’t true. The elementary school librarian gave me my library “card” when I left (the list of the books I’d checked out in the six years I’d been there) — it was about an inch of cards stapled together. I went through the children’s section of the Ilsley Library that way, too, begging a ride to town as soon as I finished a book so I could read something else. I spent most of the money I earned at the Vermont Book Store, where the floorboards still creeeeak accusingly underfoot, even if you’re only looking for the next Sweet Valley High book.

That’s just who I was. It’s still who I am. But it was so uncool.

What I discovered in Pleasanton was that it was okay to want to study and be smart. No one thought I was weird for liking school. The cool kids were still athletes and cheerleaders — it was high school, after all — but those kids were also in my AP and honors classes, and sometimes they wore glasses! I didn’t necessarily fit in any better, but the ways in which I sometimes stood out didn’t make people snicker and call me a teacher’s pet. (Not that Foothill’s the World’s Best High School, but it was worlds away from where I started.)

Even when I went back to live with Mom for a bit in my 20s, there were…expectations. If I was at home, I was expected to be out in the kitchen or living room with everyone else, talking or watching TV, or talking over whatever was on TV. Reading in my room was considered rude, and Mom would come looking for me. I started knitting (before it was cool) just so I would have something to do in front of the TV, even though I would rather have just picked up a book.

What I might have noticed, had I continued to spend equal time with both sides of the family after the age of 10, is that I wasn’t weird at all, that my bookworminess and related curiosity just corresponded more to the other half of my DNA. It doesn’t make either side better or worse or smarter or dumber than the other…it just means I might not have felt the way I did as I got older.

My experience of my adolescent self might have been entirely different.

The decisions I made in the 90s — and the people who became part of my own little tribe — are my own, and I don’t regret them in any way. Part of building a family out of friends came of thinking that I needed to, though. That I was out of place in what I perceived as my family.

I wasn’t out of place at all…just out of touch.


2 thoughts on “Rebuilding my village

  1. Amy says:

    Hi Jen – You have such an amazing way with words. I loved this post. I think it is one of your best. 😉 I know Katherine has really enjoyed getting to know you again now that you’re both adults.

  2. 8junebugs says:

    Thanks, Amy. 🙂 It’s been a rough one to get out.

    As the dancing was winding down at your wedding, I went out to get some air, and Rachel came over to sit next to me. “You just look so happy,” she said. And I was…and am. (And then we had his awesome discussion about families, how they behave, and how they grow.)

    The hardest part is balancing the loss of my mom with knowing that my life just keeps getting fuller and more joyful. It’s unseemly, but it’s true, and it’s the biggest reason I almost always seem to laugh when I cry.

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