Thursday, September 15, 2011

Family: A Memorial Reflection

Today’s the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death.  I’ve decided to commemorate this event by completing a reflection with which I’ve been tussling since the trip Steve and I took week before last to visit his family in Minnesota.  As I noted here, Steve had made arrangements to take his two aunts, who are nuns, to visit cousins around the state whom they haven’t been able to see in some years, except at family funerals.  All are aging, and travel is becoming more difficult for his aunts.  

Steve says he decided to plan this trip for them when he thought about his father’s rapid decline and death in 2008.  Steve’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer soon after we had taken him and Steve’s mother on a similar trip to visit relatives in southern Minnesota.  We did this to celebrate Steve’s father’s 80th birthday.  As Steve says, his father’s diagnosis and death not many months after that trip is a reminder of how short life is, and how important the time left to us is for celebrating together, spending time with each other, etc.

Our recent trip was family-centered, then.  For me, as someone who grew up in a very different culture than Steve did—in my case, a Southern evangelical culture—the trip was a fascinating opportunity to compare notes about what family means to me as compared to what it means to a Midwestern Catholic family of German-American background.  This project of cultural comparison and note-taking is an ongoing one for both of us for the forty years we’ve been together (next month will be the fortieth anniversary of our life together).

On the recent trip and throughout our life together, it’s been evident to me that what Steve’s family understands by the term “family” is, in many respects, very similar to what I grew up understanding the term to mean, as well.  For both of us, “family” means—has always meant—something stronger, richer, and more extended than the middle-class nuclear family, the family of father, mother, and child(ren).  Our recent trip to Minnesota makes sense only against the backdrop of an understanding of family as a more inclusive web of strong, extended relationships, since we visited cousins of varying degrees of kinship on both sides of Steve’s father’s family (his two aunts are his father’s sisters).

In several cases, these were first cousins of his aunts.  In some cases, they were cousins several degrees removed from first cousins, whose common tie is an ancestor three generations back in the family tree.  One of the cousins we visited is an “uncle” of Steve’s aunts, a first cousin raised by their grandparents as the grandparents’ child when his parents died young.  This “uncle” is, like Steve’s aunts, a Benedictine, and is now approaching the age of 100.  He was at one of the family gatherings we attended along the way.

All of this—this sense of family as an inclusive web of strong, extended relationships going beyond the nuclear family of father, mother, and child(ren)—is thoroughly familiar to me from my own upbringing.  My family of origin had the same traditional (a term to which I will return) sense of family that Steve’s German-American Midwestern Catholic family has, though our definition was Southern flavored.  Like Steve, I grew up visiting cousins of varying degrees of kinship and talking about family members one or more generations in the past.  I grew up closely connected to three of my grandparents (my mother’s father had died when she was a girl), and to great-uncles and great-aunts.  My family was constantly in close connection to my uncles and aunts, and several uncles and aunts played a role in the formation of my character as decisive as that of my parents.

Where Steve’s family experience differs significantly from mine is, of course, in its Catholic tenor.  Any gathering of Steve’s extended family is bound to include a number of nuns, priests, and brothers, and the gatherings we attended in recent weeks were no exception.  And at any of these gatherings, family members who were members of religious communities but have now died continue to be a living presence, as stories are told about them and their absence is noted.  

Not only are Steve’s aunts Benedictines, but one of their aunts was, as well, and she remains a vital presence at family gatherings, since cousins throughout the extended family network talk constantly and fondly about her, have named children for her, and cherish the pottery this family member made when her community released her from years of work in the monastery laundry and she was able at last to pursue a lifelong interest in art and throwing pots.  We actually began the recent family-centered trip, which Steve insisted on calling a pilgrimage, by visiting this great-aunt's grave in her monastery's cemetery.

I do not mean to idealize either Steve’s family or mine through these meditations.  In my own family, the strong, inclusive, extended notion of family—the traditional notion—with which I grew up has not survived into this century.  It has been alive for centuries now, but will die with my generation.  Just as I carry the name William, which passed from my grandfather’s grandfather to him and then to me (and which had passed to that grandfather from his uncle, and so on back to Maryland in the early 1700s), I carry the name, Dennis, of the first ancestor I can find in America on the Lindsey side of my family, an Irish indentured servant named Dennis Lynch (his name shifted to Lindsey after his immigration) who came to Virginia in 1718.  That given name passes down from father to son through generation after generation of my family, to me.  It has not been handed on and will not be handed on by the current generation of my family.  It will die with me.

My brothers and their wives did not raise their children to understand or respect the concept of family with which we ourselves grew up, and the great-grandparents and great-great grandparents with whom I grew up as living figures, though they were long since dead by my childhood, are no longer even names to my nieces and nephews, who care nothing at all for any of these names or family stories.  Aunts and uncles do not play a meaningful role in the lives of my nieces and nephews, as they did for me as a child.  The memories and stories of our family members of the past will die with me, except insofar as I have recorded information about them and have shared it with cousins of varying degrees of kinship who do continue to care about these matters.

And it is not much different for Steve’s family.  As I’ve noted, the cousins we visited with his aunts—the cousins who continue to maintain strong family ties to each other and who care intently about keeping those bonds (and memories of past family members) alive—are all very much up in years.  They belong to a generation that represents a concept of family, that is, to be brutally candid, dying.

There have been priests, nuns, and religious brothers in Steve’s extended family for generations.  This is no longer the case.  No family members of Steve’s generation or the generations now coming of age have entered religious life or sought ordination.  It is highly unlikely that they will do so.  

The family-centered Catholic life (a life grounded in a traditional sense of family as a strong, extended, inclusive web of relationships transcending the nuclear family) from which these religious vocations sprang is a thing of the past.  It will not return, because the economic and social conditions in which it was grounded are long since gone.  The family farms that sustained large families of 10 or more children, several of whom in each family unit frequently became religious, are gone.  They have been swept away by large mega-farms operated, in many cases, by people who do not even live on their land, but whose sole interest in it is profit.  Government policies not only favor this economic (and social) development, but have actively abetted it and have rewarded those who have moved in this direction.

As in my family, in Steve’s rapidly vanishing traditional family, the concept of family has come to mean, for the current generation—for his siblings—the nuclear family, the unit comprised of father, mother, and child(ren).  In his family, however, there’s a different, specifically Catholic, twist on this development, and it’s this twist to which I want to draw attention in the concluding section of this brief memorial essay (a memorial for my mother on the 10th anniversary of her death, and for the traditional family, which is now actively dying).

As I’ve noted in a number of previous postings, several of Steve’s siblings are heavily invested in traditionalist Catholic movements that claim that they are all about retrieving the lost Catholicism of the past.  These include the St. Pius X movement.  

And these hyper-traditionalist Catholic siblings of Steve also maintain that they are retrieving the traditional family that is under attack as the Catholic church has moved through the changes of Vatican II.  They attack Steve as a gay brother because traditional family is, they claim, ipso facto the family of father, mother, and child(ren), and cannot include a gay brother or uncle.  

In response to economic and social shifts over which they have no control, which have decimated the traditional family life of their region (which have decimated the traditional understanding of family as an inclusive web of strong, extended relationships transcending the nuclear family), Steve’s traditionalist Catholic siblings have created tightly organized, exceptionally defensive family enclaves.  Family enclaves that are entirely exclusive rather than inclusive; enclaves that exclude from the family circle everyone except father, mother, and child(ren) . . . . 

In other words, the “traditional” father-mother-child(ren) understanding of family Steve’s hyper-traditionalist Catholic siblings and many other right-wing Catholics are now defending as the traditional notion of family is nothing of the sort: it represents a capitulation to the very economic and social forces that have decimated the traditional notion of family.   The obsessive focus on a definition of family as one man + one woman + children diminishes and weakens the inclusive web of strong, extended relationships that sustain even the nuclear family unit itself, when that unit experiences stresses of one kind or another.

As I’ve noted, aunts and uncles (and grandparents) played a key role in the formation of my character.  They did so, in part, because my own parents were not perfect parents.  Both of my parents were alcoholics, and their marriage was tumultuous from the beginning, and hardly conducive to the peace and stability in which children mature most easily.  

Fortunately, when things were abysmal within my own nuclear family, I could—and I did—turn for support to my grandparents, to aunts and uncles who had shown a particular interest in me and commitment to my well-being.  Even when I did not speak openly about the problems within my tiny family circle (and I didn’t, because my parents strictly forbade me to do so), I understood, from the demeanor of my grandparents and some of my aunts and uncles, that they understood.  And that they intended for their homes to be a refuge for me in the storm of my family life.

Some of these aunts and uncles were unmarried.  In another generation, they may well have identified themselves as gay.  They were akin, in a Southern evangelical cultural context, to the members of Steve’s large, extended traditional family circle who have long become nuns, priests, or brothers, since they have not felt a strong impulse to marry and reproduce.  As with Steve’s family members who have entered religious life, so with my unmarried aunts and uncles: they were a vital part of the family circle (in the larger, traditional sense of family) who demonstrated a strong concern for the younger members of the family who were not biologically their children.  They were generative in the best sense of that term, in Erik Erikson’s understanding of the term.

I mentioned a first cousin of Steve’s grandfather who was raised by Steve’s great-grandparents as their son when his parents died leaving him an orphan at a young age, so that this cousin is now an “uncle” in Steve’s extended family.  This development—in which one small family unit recognizes its obligation to the larger family, and raises members of another small family unit that is experiencing stress—has gone on for centuries in traditional families.  There are countless cases of it in my own family tree.  

It has long been a necessary manifestation of family precisely because the conditions for sustaining family and raising children and caring for family members in need are simply too fragile, when family is defined solely as one man + one woman + child(ren).  When something, when anything, happens to disturb the stability of the nuclear family unit, family in the stronger, more inclusive, extended web of relationships is necessary to pick up the pieces.

When the culturally powerful metaphor enfolded in the term “family” is diminished, as it has been diminished by religious groups claiming that they are intent to save the “traditional” definition of family as man + woman + child(ren), then that diminished understanding of family undermines many of the most important affirmations many religious groups have long made about the term “family.”  The reductionistic notion of family as the middle-class nuclear family (I’ve recently had some Catholic bloggers tell me this is the “objective” Catholic understanding of family) undermines some of the most important affirmations that many Christians, including Catholic Christians, have long made about the church--e.g., that the church is the family of God.

If family can “objectively” mean only man + woman + child, it cannot mean church: it cannot mean brothers and sisters bound together in familial relationship through Christ.  Nor can it mean family in the broader sense of the human family--a powerful concept of many religious traditions.  The reductionistic sense robs these deeply traditional and exceedingly significant metaphorical extensions of the term “family” of all meaning, and in this way, contributes to the fragmentation of the community of faith and of the community of faith.

There is a tragedy about the way in which many people of faith, including Catholics who identify themselves as exceptionally orthodox and traditional, have chosen to reduce the significance of the term "family" to the one man, one woman, with child(ren) concept of nuclear family.  There is a tragedy, and no little irony, about the fact that, in seeking to exclude gay and lesbian family members from the family circle, many faith-based proponents of the "traditional" understanding of family are actually colluding in dissolving what remains of the traditional understanding of family as an inclusive web of strong, extended relationships that actually are necessary to the sustenance of the nuclear family itself.

The irony might be stated this way: while loudly professing a Knights of Columbus commitment to strengthening the "traditional" family on Sunday, many Catholics spend the other six days of their work week participating in a Chamber of Commerce attack on the very conditions required for the maintenance of the traditional family.  The self-professed values of many orthodox-traditionalist Catholics are all about family and shoring up family.

But the economic and political behavior of many of these same Catholics is all about assisting economic and political structures that are causing traditional family rapidly to fragment . . . .  

And, unfortunately, the U.S. Catholic bishops have not provided American Catholics with the kind of sound pastoral leadership and moral instruction in the area of economic and political life necessary to enable many Catholics to make a connection between the deleterious effects of their economic and political choices and what is happening to the traditional family they claim to value.  Nor has the bishops' willing collusion in the attempt of right-wing political movements intent on attacking gay and lesbian family members by redefining traditional family in an exclusive and reductionistic way as one man + one woman + child(ren) helped at all.

As the 2012 elections approach, and as Catholics in Minnesota are urged by their bishops to support an initiative that will enshrine the reductionistic and non-traditional middle-class nuclear understanding of family in the state's constitution as the "traditional" understanding of family, it will be interesting to see how things play out.  Particularly since the traditional notion of family as a web of strong, inclusive, extended relationships transcending the middle-class nuclear family remains a vibrant living memory for many Minnesota Catholics, as Steve's and my recent trip through the state demonstrated to us . . . .

P.S. At lunch today, several hours after I posted the preceding reflection, Steve told me he had word this morning that one of the cousins we were to visit on this trip died yesterday.  We had visited her in May, and as Steve planned the September trip, he got word that she was very sick, and decided not to burden her with a visitAs he says, it's events like this that confirm for him the wisdom of keeping family ties alive now and visiting now.

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