On Family

Posted on February 5, 2017

Seven years ago today, I wrote about family, about finding it and losing it and recreating it. 
Seven years later, these words are still true.

*    *    *
I’ve been resting and talking and reading and trying to work through the fallout that inevitably happens when you try to go home again. In one sense, what I did was so easy. I flew on a plane to my mom’s house several months after she died, cleaned it up, packed much, donated more, and drove home.

In another sense, it couldn’t have been harder. I flew to the house where my mom suffered and died, slept in the same room where nurses and aids and family and friends cared for her in her last weeks, sat in the same chair I’d sat in months earlier while stroking her still-warm body, only seconds after she’d left it behind on her journey. I relived every moment of our trip in December ’08 and again in April/May ’09, discovering priceless information about this very complex and very convoluted family that would throw me into a deep and sudden awe and compassion upon finding one treasure, anger and betrayal at the next discovery.

But that’s what family is for, is it not? To leave future generations with enough burning questions and obsessions that neither genealogy researchers nor therapists will ever have to worry about job security.

In my family, in that house, with those memories, I’m still confused. Information I discovered that had never been shared with me before, information that made me see my parents with part-awe and part betrayal, not knowing in that moment if I loved them or hated them, but only knowing I couldn’t walk away.

My brother and I, who could barely be trusted to be left alone when we were kids, lest one of us injure the other seriously enough to require medical attention, went through 65 years of collected possessions, including possessions my mom had inherited from her mom and dad and from her mother-in-law. We opened every box, unwrapped every piece cushioned by well-worn newspaper or paper towel. It was a life autopsy of possessions and we, the examiners, separated and examined and weighed and tested every piece.

Numerous times, most notably when I was eyeing the growing stack of boxes for me to take back home and then visualizing the interior of a minivan and trying to figure out how it would all fit, I would wonder why I had come to do this in the first place.


It seems instantly an easy enough answer. I wanted some remnants of my childhood, as did my brother. I wanted some mementos of my parents, ones that focused on the happy times. I didn’t want my brother to have to do this all by himself. And I wanted to get the place cleaned out so it could be rented. Another family, new life, new dreams. I think Mom would have liked that.

But was that really it? Digging through boxes and papers and clothing and endless amounts of plastic utensils and wet wipes and matches, the detritus of a life lived and loved and suffered and lost, what did I really find?

I found that family is a need, not a noun. Family could have been brutal and unforgiving, it could have meant growing up battered in mind, body, and spirit, and it also could have been children’s laughter on the swingset, a surprise trip to the zoo to put the blue elephant key in the box and hear the narrator tell you about what animal you’re viewing. Family is the need to always display some photographs and never others, never quite explaining if the hidden ones are being sequestered away to be forgotten or in need of more precious protection than hanging openly on a wall.

Family is a beginning and often, an end. Family is where we came from, that lifeline to who we were and how we came to be this way. Family is our excuse, our answered prayer, our legacy, our mark on the world. We love it and hate it, run to it and rebel from it.

Spending one week immersed in this family, in these memories, in this house, I was nearly ready to walk away. But I didn’t, and now I’m home in the midst of these memory-filled items, not sure whether to mourn or rejoice, whether to use these objects as jumping-off points for discussions about the great-great-grands and how their lives were similar or different, or whether to pack them away until I can look at them without feeling such a hollow sense of loss.

I sorted and cleaned my way through a person’s life, learning as I went, and found a woman I hadn’t completely gotten to know, and now never will. Then I spent a week trying to return to my family, my mind ever on the challenges of the road I was taking. And then when I got home, I buried myself in a collection of political thrillers, looking, as the characters are, for order within chaos, duty within impossible moral choices, fleeing a past that may never be gone, and in fact parts of which are sitting in my living room.

I went for family, I stayed for family. And yet I feel like I’m leaving with a different sense of family. Gone is the omnipotence; what remains behind is the shattered life that found comfort in collections. And after picking up the pieces, I moved toward a family that I want simply to be honest and decent and caring.

You can’t go home again, but you can define home and family for yourself and build it, out of the tools you inherited from your family, or the creative adaptations you learned because the only tools left to you were so morally broken they weren’t worth using.

I did it for family. Which one—then or now?  Neither, actually. I did it for what family means to my heart and soul, where family means the most.

Originally posted on Interstate Insanity
Reprinted with permission
Copyright ©2010 by Sheyna Galyan



You may also be interested in…



I feel like I'm not here. But my body is.The pain roaring beneath my skin, slicing through  my organs, curdling in my...

Skip to content