Smitty and I went on vacation. On ‘vacation’, that is, in quotes.
We don’t know how to go lie on a beach. It’s possible we just don’t know how to relax, period, but nothing in this trip promised relaxation.
We flew to San Francisco (airplane cloud photos here, for those of you into cloud photos or who just like following stray links). I was on my way to meet for the first time two cousins from my biological family. I’m adopted and never met my biological parents – for more on that bizarro story, read here, below the synopsis and excerpt link.
As if that wasn’t enough, Smitty was going to reunite with a group of people she grew up with. This was not a high school reunion. It was another kind of family and one that, going in, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.
But the first day, we decided to be tourists (her brilliant blog on the subject here)! With Smitty’s best friend of thirty years (and mine of almost a year), we ate way too much food at the Ferry Terminal, rode a 1940’s-era streetcar, ate yet more food at Pier 39 (the kitschy version of the Ferry Terminal) and then went for a cable car ride, a mechanical-age marvel roller coaster clattering through the middle of America’s most beautiful city. And I saw something there I’d never seen before – Smitty as a 10-year-old girl, that look of utter, innocent fearless delight on her face from Hyde and Bay all the way over the hill to the Embarcadero.
The two dinners with my cousins, who remember my biological mother as Aunt Betty, revealed a sharp, witty and cutting woman, always maintaining a bit of shell and a bit of distance. One of my cousins wrote a radio play for college and sent it to Aunt Betty (who started selling her radio plays at age 16!) – Aunt Betty promptly cut it to ribbons.
I see myself in all of this. I’ve worked on my total lack of diplomacy my whole life – I’m still distinctly a work-in-progress on that score. I can surely be cutting and witty, not always at the right time. And though I’ve always wanted desperately to be loved, to find a place I fit in, there’s always been a part of me that distrusts that impulse and fears wanting something that much.
In a way, the most powerful result of the dinners was also the most subtle, the one that took awhile to surface: feeling normal. I grew up an artist in a family that didn’t encourage that calling. They loved me and put me through (a very expensive) college for writing but were always dismissive and discouraging of my ambitions, out of protectiveness and fear for me. And you’ve got to be at least selectively fearless to be an artist.
So now, I had two new cousins a few years younger than me; smart, funny, blunt and plainly artistic: one a rock musician/massage therapist, the other an advertising creative and book writer. Smitty said to me after dinner, “You fought all those years just to become who you really are” and the proof of that was sitting across the dinner table from me.
As to the Santa Cruz reunion, that’s not really my story to tell, except for one bit, the one that matters most to me: One of my major reasons for taking this trip (money’s very tight these days) was a protectiveness for Smitty that she’d probably smack me for. I knew she needed to see these people again but the experience they’d had together wasn’t all roses and starlight, to say the least, and I was concerned about the effect reviving these memories might have.
The weekend was every bit as intense and jarring and powerful as I’d anticipated. But Smitty’s old friends were really fine, smart, loving people, people I really related to, who’d shared a very complex and very powerful bond (does anything powerful ever come from simple?).
I hung around Smitty (I probably hovered a bit more than I should have), did a lot of dishes and participated whenever I felt I had something to add. But, as we were saying goodbye, I was shocked when one of the women pulled me into a hug and said ‘You’re one of us now.’ I teared up – something inside me let go. I really did feel like one of them, one of the lost children who’d found his own way in the world. I’d found a place, finally, where I fit in.
Family isn’t blood or even history, though those things surely matter. Family are the people who make your heart open up whenever they’re around and you find them where you find them.