I was born in 1957, in the Eisenhower age of contented suburban families and pots full of chickens; but it was not until I was in my forties that I discovered the value of family. Because I had to learn in middle age what most people are able to intuit starting in their earliest childhood, and because I had to stumble my way through most of my life without that knowledge, I think my angle on the value of family is worth exploring.
The streetcorner sociologists say that we Jews, like all Mediterranean societies, hold our families close. I think immediately of the opening scene of Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” where the members of an extended Jewish family crowd around a dinner table and argue whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is the greater ocean. Every bell curve, though, has its tails; and our family was certainly one of the most non-prehensile of those. Put simply, our Jewish family were so politely distant from one another that we may as well have been from another tribe altogether.
First, there were very few of us. My father’s family had nothing more to do with us once my parents were divorced; I never knew them. My mother’s family had only nine members: my grandmother, her two daughters, and each daughter’s two-child nuclear family. If those nine of us had any aunts, uncles, nieces, or fourth cousins once removed, I never knew any of them, and they certainly were never part of our lives. Neither did we have any of the sorts of close family friends who drop by of a Sunday morning with a cheese strudel and some mischievous stories to tell.
Second, we behaved (and still behave) like vaguely friendly acquaintances. Other than at holiday gatherings, the only time I remember spending any time with my aunt’s family was the one out-of-the-blue occasion when my uncle took my brother and me to see the Harlem Globetrotters play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never know what inspired this outing, but the inspiration to spend time with us, to go with us to a movie or to offer to throw a ball around, never struck again. My two cousins, then and now, forged their own very separate lives. They have never demonstrated any desire to be close to me or, indeed, to one another. In what may very well be a common modern suburban development, we lived our parallel but separate lives and rarely thought of one another.
The notion of a “nuclear” family brings to mind the old foam-balls-and-toothpicks model of the atom, with the nucleus (parents) in the center and the electron (Buffy) and proton (Little Billy) in close orbit. Of course, the actual distances within an atom are not close: the distance between an atom’s nucleus and (what we used to think of as) its orbiting particles is in roughly the same ratio as the Sun is to Pluto, multiplied by about 140. In that sense, my family is indeed “nuclear.” Even after we four cousins all were done with college and were back in the same area, we family members rarely saw each other, almost never called each other, and by and large left birthdays and holidays uncommemorated.
This is not a commentary on our own separate families. I came to parenting, at barely age twenty, with no experience of being parented or of being a part of an intact household. Nevertheless, my children and I wove a family on our own terms, picking our way along that path as we went. In that sense, I certainly experienced the rich value of being part of a family, as I’m sure my aunt and uncle, brother and cousins, did as well in their separate households. But, that inevitable bond of parents and children who share one roof is not the “family” that I’m talking about here.
The “family” that I’m talking about here – the loving community of relatives and friends – was unknown to me until years after my own nest was empty. I discovered it in a country farmhouse in the Brandywine Valley area of Pennsylvania, nigh to Christmas, about a dozen years ago. I was invited there with the Dublin-born woman I was dating, to spend a snowy holiday dinner with her Irish-born relatives.
My entry into this Irish family was not easy. My girlfriend was reluctant to tell her Catholic parents back in Dublin that she was dating a Jew. When, finally, she confessed to her Dad, there was a long silence, followed by the Yoda-like pronouncement, “A Jew, is he? Fierce intelligent race, they are.”
Just so, when I arrived at this Christmas-season dinner, I saw how very different my tribe was from theirs. Gathered around a fireplace (!!) groaning with decorations and stockings were a dozen chattering relatives, each teasing the other mercilessly about some silly foible, and each giving back in kind. Presents were exchanged, one more thoughtful and truly welcomed than the next. They bantered with delight, the way old friends do when they truly cherish each other’s company. Well, you get the picture; cue Norman O’Rockwell.
I was in my early 40’s then, and I had never in my life witnessed such a thing. It was transformative. For the first time in my life, I wanted that same family connection, that same warm community of others.
I wish that I could say that I was able to carry this life lesson into my own family. I did try. I gathered the dates of my relatives’ birthdays and anniversaries, startled to find that no one in the family had such a list. Although I began to send cards and gifts to family members for birthdays and holidays, no one ever reciprocated (though my aunt continued her kind lifelong practice of sending me a birthday card). I began to host elaborate family dinners. These, however, were often tense (at one, I asked for some help to move furniture after the dinner, and my relatives stormed out in anger, demanding an apology afterward); and, once I married Barbara, for some reason we stopped being invited to family dinners (though we continue to invite the whole mischpucha to family gatherings at our house). As for this generation (me, my brother, my cousins and their families), the long careless telephone droughts can last for months.
Nevertheless, the lesson of that Christmas dinner (and the many big-hearted lessons of family and community that Barbara delivers effortlessly) have changed my life. No longer the autocrat of my own island, I now am happily surrounded by friends and deeply involved in my own and Barbara’s extended families, as well as the enormous community that I’ve created among the thousands of regular patrons and the dozen volunteer staffers at my concert series.
Tolstoy (whose family life at Yasnaya Polyana was certainly no model) of course said that happy families are all alike; and this lesson shows that is true. Happy families seem to live for one another’s company, and for the joy of delighting one another, comforting one another, and huddling together in a loving conspiracy of family. I continue to aspire to live that lesson, for yea as we learn from The Godfather: ” A man who does not spend time with his family can never be a real man.”