the ties that bind

There’s an old proverb that says you can’t choose your family. You take what the fates hand you and like them or not, love them or not, understand them or not…you cope. Some people believe that without history, our lives amount to nothing. Our history is what shapes us… what guides us.

I have family visiting this week. It feels awkward. They live in Wisconsin and I live in Northern Ontario. I don’t remember the last time they’ve come to see us and it’s been almost 7 years since I’ve gone to see them. They haven’t even met my youngest son.

There are three girls in my mother’s family–my mother is the oldest, my aunt who is visiting is the middle child and the baby lives at the other end of Lake Superior. I would be lying if I didn’t say I wish it was my youngest aunt who was visiting instead. It’s just easier with her. Conversation is easier. Life is easier. I don’t feel like I need to be someone I’m not when she is visiting.

I have a hard time talking with my aunt and her adult children (her husband died a long time ago). My aunt has no filter whatsoever. Her kids are the same. They judge and allow no space for the thoughts and opinions of others.

The majority of the conversations are about my mother’s family. They like to talk about my father as well. Most of it isn’t good conversation. It’s focused on the drinking, the partying and the anger and all the things that come with it. My cousins didn’t even know our grandparents or any of their siblings, but seem to have all of the information on what happened. I spend most of the time just sitting and listening, in a place of uneasy silence…..imagining it only feels odd to me. I feel like I always need to be on the defense but I don’t really know why because I haven’t done anything wrong.

They ask me questions. Questions I don’t have the answers to. I feel as though I am being bombarded by millions of little pictures. Snapshots from the whole. The fragments do not make sense to me, like they seem to make sense to them. Part of one picture lines up with part of another but I have no idea what I am supposed to see. What can I know from these mixed-up jigsaw puzzle messages? I get part of it. I don’t understand the rest. My mind is filled with images and thoughts that do not fit together, not now, not ever. Everything feels just out of reach.

I watch my mother and her movements. I hope that by following her lead I will know what I’m supposed to do. It’s actually fascinating how she can change the subject so seamlessly that you don’t even know it’s happening. My mother deals with her demons by hiding in the bottle. But she doesn’t drink when my aunt is visiting (or drinks by hiding it). A child of alcoholics, she copes the same way her parents did. I can tell she wants to drink (maybe even needs to) to calm herself, but my aunt is not accepting of any type of drinking whatsoever. My mother is on edge and I am cautious about saying anything to her.

I’ve learned a lot of things these last few days. Things I never knew and will need time to process. It’s hard not to be haunted by our past because our history resurfaces time after time after time. When the battle chooses us, and not the other way around, that’s when the sacrifice can turn out to be more than we can bear. Nothing comes without a price and before you go into battle, you better decide how much you’re willing to lose.

One thing is certain. Under the cover of darkness, people do things they’d never do under the harsh glare of day. But when the sun rises, you have to take responsibility for what you did in the dark and face yourself under the cold, harsh light of day. The human life is made up of choices. Yes or no. In or out. Up or down. And then there are the choices that matter. To love or hate. To be a hero or to be a coward. To fight or to give in. To live. Or die. Live or die. That’s the important choice.

At some point we all have to choose: do we fall back on what we know, or do we step forward to something new?

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