Feb 23, 201210:40 PM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
Family Funeral Frenzy
Ugh, what a week – and I don’t mean Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras was fine, low-key, some much-needed relaxation.
But I learned early on the morning of Fat Tuesday that my maternal grandfather had died of a stroke – and then learned early Ash Wednesday that my favorite aunt, my dad’s sister, died in her sleep on Mardi Gras night.
Two deaths of people I love on both sides of my family has thrown me into a bit of a tizzy, not least because the two sides of my family couldn’t possibly be more different, and trying to go back and forth, grieving appropriately with each side, is making my head spin. I’m halfway scared that I’m going to get confused and make an off-color joke to my mom’s family and spout some well-meaning Midwestern platitude to my dad’s, thus confusing and offending both sides.
People sometimes comment that I don’t have much of an accent, and my explanation is always the same: My mom is from Milwaukee; my dad is from North Carolina; they canceled each other out. I think geography also goes a long way to explain deeper differences in the sides of my family.
My mom’s family is about as stoic and Midwestern as they come. They are practical and frugal to a fault; they are a small, orderly bunch. They stay married. They don’t show emotion. They go to church and watch sports and make heavy meals with Velveeta and canned goods. They don’t ever discuss politics. They use their inside voices all the time. Due to the unpredictable winter weather and the high price of last-minute air fares, they have decided to have my grandfather cremated and hold a service next month. I have never had a fight with these people. I have never told them I loved them, either. It doesn’t mean I don’t; it’s just how it is on that side.
My dad’s family, on the other hand, is about as crazy and Southern as they come. Our family tree is watered with bourbon and beer, and it branches off in crazy, dysfunctional ways. There are divorces and illegitimate children, half-siblings, step-siblings, whispers of questioned paternity. There are open secrets and long-held grudges and hundreds of family legends. They yell and curse and then kiss and make up. They are loud and sloppy and confusing. They are entirely inappropriate and funny as hell; they are also capable of being really horrible to one another. When my aunt died, everyone descended on the city with no planning or foresight or fussing over ticket prices – there was a tragedy, and we had to come together. I love this side of the family, and they know it. We are generous with affection.
As much as I love them, though, I always feel a bit like an outsider at family gatherings. There is always a part of me, the well-bred WASP-y part that comes from my mom, that is always standing on the sidelines watching these people and thinking: “Oh, my goodness, please do calm down and behave a bit better! What will people think?!” Likewise, I am always a bit bemused when I get together with my mom’s family. Their buttoned-up demeanor incites in me an almost irresistible urge to shock them. “Why don’t you people feel things?!” I wonder. “Just once before you die, you should laugh until you’re crying and cry until your face is blotchy and slick with snot. Both of those experiences are completely worthwhile!”
In the end, of course, I don’t say any of that. In the end, I make an off-color joke to my dad’s family and spout some well-meaning Midwestern platitude to my mom’s. And I love them all completely and unconditionally. After all, they’re family.