Dysfunction, distance, disparate views: A family lost in time

95 south in North Carolina cropBY CANDY PARKER

By the time you see this on Friday, I’ll be somewhere between Virginia and Florida, cruise-controlling it down Route 95 to visit family I’ve not seen in eons. How long is eons, you ask? According to Dictionary.com, it’s “an indefinitely long period of time,” but in my case it ranges anywhere from two years to a whopping 34 years, depending on the family member. Yeah, I wasn’t really exaggerating too much when I said eons.

So why did I tell the office “be back when I get back,” load up the car and point it south now after decades of estrangement? The answer lies, in large part, in this photo, delivered by a half-sister I’ve not seen in over thirty years.

Candy, Sharon and Cindy

Caption: L-R Cindy (2), Candy (15) and Sharon (4) with a cairn terrier whose name I can’t recall – circa 1977

Not exactly “The Waltons”

To say that I’m not close to my family would be an understatement of mass proportions. Time, distance, family dysfunction, disparate political/social views and lifestyles have conspired to render us family in name only. We share DNA, but not details on each other’s lives. We share faded memories, but make no time together to create new ones. We have become, in effect, strangers.

You see, my dad and sister each moved to Florida in 1979 and 1981, respectively. My dad relocated from Northern Virginia shortly after my high school graduation, accepting a job and starting a new life in Tallahassee with his third wife, my two half-sisters [then ages 6 (Sharon) and 4 (Cindy)] from his second marriage and his wife’s two young kids.

A couple of years later, my sister followed her high school sweetheart to the sweat and mosquito capital of the United States, as well. (Anyone picking up on the fact that I’m not a huge fan of Florida?) They settled in Palm Bay, married, had two daughters they worked hard to keep from “becoming too friendly with the black kids” at school and settled into a lifestyle of which Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity would be proud, but which I personally find distasteful.

What? Oh, you’re wondering about the “becoming too friendly with the black kids” line. I suppose I should explain that I come from a long line of bigots — the “N-word” and other (even more) objectionable terms for African Americans were bandied about with ease by my paternal grandparents (and, no, they weren’t hip-hop recording artists).

I’m afraid that two generations removed, my sister continues to be less than progressive in her thinking. While neither she nor her husband belong to the KKK (at least as far as I know), they weren’t keen on the idea of their eldest daughter (now 24) developing friendships with black children when she was in grade school. So in fifth grade they had her moved to another classroom, admonishing her not to make the same “mistake” she’d made in the previous class. I really can’t make this stuff up.

In any event, my aversion to Fox News-brand ignorance, heat, humidity and giant flying roaches (no one’s fooling anyone by calling them Palmetto bugs) combined with my father’s inability to talk to me about anything except work, my car and the weather since 1995 (the year I left my husband and came out as a lesbian) combined to create quite of bit of distance amongst us in the ensuing years.

Heading into 2014, I’d not spoken with my dad in two-and-a-half years nor visited him in 19; my sister was someone with whom I exchanged emails about my insane mother (she’s another column — or book — unto herself) but not much else; and Sharon and Cindy were complete strangers with whom I’d not spoken in over 30 years.

Extending the olive branch

After a good bit of hounding from a close friend over dinner in mid-January this year, I called my dad for the first time since April 2011. The conversation was awkward, though he was elated to hear from me. Caught up in a moment of inexplicable nostalgia, I casually tossed out, “Maybe I’ll come visit for your birthday this year, Dad.”

At the time, it seemed very distant. Early April was three months away — he’d forget by then, right? Memory is the first thing to go, after all, and he’d be turning 76.

Flash forward two months: my dad’s mental faculties appear to be fully intact and news of my offhand proposal had circulated through my siblings like parvo virus on a Carnival Cruise ship.

My sister and her daughters arranged to visit for my dad’s birthday and Sharon, now 41 years old and living outside Seattle, booked a flight with her husband and toddler son for the same time. (My other Oregon-based half-sister wouldn’t be joining us to make it a full-fledged family reunion as she has apparently married someone from the early 1900s who believes air travel is the work of the devil or something along those lines.)

At any rate, my fate was cast a month or so ago when I learned that my sisters had rallied. I was going to have to do this. I was going to have to get in my car, drive 14 hours to a swampy wasteland of a state to visit people I barely know. I was going to have to burn vacation time and money and get my estranged ass to Tallahassee whether I really wanted to or not.

Second thoughts

As I write this, my departure date is just three days away. I’ll confess that I spent the past weekend bouncing potential trip-canceling excuses off friends — what’s more believable: I fell down the stairs and sprained my ankle, something came up at the office, I have strep throat or my back is acting up?

As of this morning I’d not mentally or emotionally committed to make the trip, though I continued to make the necessary arrangements — getting my ducks in order at work, lining up a pet and house sitter, allocating funds from the monthly budget.

Of course, my friends, unfamiliar with the particular brand of dysfunction prevalent in my family, implored me to go. But I had a response for every appeal.

“Candy, you should go. How are you going to feel if you don’t go now and something happens to your dad?”

“I’ll actually feel worse if I do go — I’m not attached now and I’ll be more attached if I go!”

“Candy, you’ll have a good time. Maybe you’ll get closer to your sisters after this.”

“Why do I want to get closer to my sisters? They’re strangers at this point! I have friends. I work two jobs. I don’t have time to invest in getting to know more people.”

“Just go, Candy. It’ll be a nice break.”

“It’s not a nice break to go somewhere with humidity of 90 percent. Besides, I’ll just be stressed out about work the entire time.”

My mind was cranking, thinking of the best excuse to get me out of the trip, the timing with which it should be delivered and how best to assuage the guilt after delivering the news.

You’ve got mail

But then I got to the office this morning and received an email from Sharon.

The email was brief with a simple subject line of “Soon” and the following short sentences: “Wow, it’s coming quick. We are flying Thursday! Hey, are you bringing your pup?”

There was no mention of the attachment she had included with the message. I clicked to open the file, not knowing what to expect, and found that damned photo.

Instantly, I was drowning in a deluge of emotions as I sat staring at the screen, transfixed and transported to 1977. I was 15. My half-sisters just two and four years old and living with my dad a half-hour away from where I resided with my sister and mom.

I immediately remembered — no, not just remembered, but felt — how crazy I’d been about those kids when they were little. I’d had such plans as the big sister — to teach them to play softball and take them to Kings Dominion amusement park and help them with homework as they grew older. But those times never materialized as they left for Florida — and then went on to California to live with their mother — well before it would have been wise to put an aluminum bat in their hands.

From the instant I clicked on that damned picture, I knew I had to go on this trip. There’s a part of me that still doesn’t want to, really, but I know that sometimes the periods of greatest personal growth are borne from things we didn’t really want to do in the first place.

There’s clearly some sort of connection that remains amongst us. That unannounced photo and my emotional reaction upon seeing it are proof of that.

I’m also realizing that there’s more to my familial estrangement than state borders, prejudices and differing world views. I’ve found myself questioning my role in maintaining the more-than-physical distance amongst us and finding that my own insecurities may have played a part, as well.

So, yep, I’m on 95 South right now, likely with my iPod cranked, an eye out for the next Starbucks and a mind struggling to fill in the gaps left by time. I hope to fill in those memory fissures and discover a little more about myself, too, over the course of the next few days.

I’ll be back here at the keyboard to share what I’ve learned in part two when I return. Meanwhile, someone go ahead and get me on the schedule with a therapist, will ya?

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