My mother invited her estranged brother to our house on Long Island when I was six years old. I remember pink rhododendron, a white dress with yellow flowers. I remember the not-unpleasant sense that something important was happening. But I don’t remember my uncle himself or the specifics of that day. I assume we all had dinner together. What did we talk about? Was there dessert? I later learned that as my parents were going to bed, after what must have been a long evening, he asked for wine and my mother told him to help himself to whatever he wanted—aside from one special bottle in the basement that they were saving; it had been a wedding present. He drank that bottle. We never saw him again.
Doesn’t this story sound improbable? When I’ve said as much to my parents over the years—that it sounds like a story people tell when they don’t want to tell the real and more complicated version—they still shrug and offer something like, Well, that’s the way it goes.
My mother and her two brothers grew up in an old brick house with black shutters in Providence, Rhode Island. White subway tile and a clawfoot tub. Kelly green carpet, wallpaper scrawled with vines; the scent of camphor and dog. Visiting as a child, I remember looking at the black and white portraits lining the hallway: my mother with unflattering short hair, the uncle whom I knew (though he and my mother weren’t close either). And then there was the uncle who drank the wrong bottle of wine, who had cut himself off from the family shortly after graduating from The University of Pennsylvania in the mid 1960s. I knew he was very smart, and also that he was difficult and strange. My grandfather was a beloved pediatrician, my grandmother worked on behalf of Fair Housing; they were active community members, nice. What could have happened to make their son decide he didn’t want to be part of his own family?
I asked my mother’s cousins, a few great aunts and uncles, but they just shrugged, too. So over my teenage years, with each visit to my grandparents’ house, I continued looking for clues. I listened, suspiciously, to even the most banal anecdotes. I scavenged in the attic while everyone was sleeping. There were letters my mother wrote to her parents from summer camp and college, and post-college when she lived in Paris; there was my grandfather’s Naval uniform, my grandmother’s wedding dress. I found travel posters from the 1950s advertising Tahiti, Capri, Alaska. My Grandma let me take them home, and I pinned the lush, outdated images to my suburban bedroom walls.
A friend of mine thinks it’s surprising that I wonder about what could have happened to make my uncle ditch his family. Why do you assume something happened? she asked.
Some people just want to be untethered. Some people need a lot of space.
Of course something must have happened, I said. Just…opting out?
Researchers at Emory University in the 1990s—Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush—discovered that the more children know about their families, the better they do in the face of life’s challenges. The kinds of stories that predict the closest families aren’t successes or failures but rather tales that incorporate life’s challenges into the family lore. It’s not my uncle’s absence that haunts me—after all, I never knew him. It’s that no one—not my grandparents, my parents, or any of my mother’s cousins we visited with over the years—told me stories about him, or about losing him. No one mused aloud about why he removed himself from the rest of us. It’s the absence of inquiry that feels disquieting, even now. How could my mother grow up in the same small house as her brother, and have nothing much to say about him? What are her questions, and where does she put them?
How many people grow up and opt out of their families? And how are you supposed to talk about it? I wish there was a map for dealing with the loss of those who are still living: the missing, the addicts, the cult members, the ones who simply retreat.
As it happens, there’s a story like this in my husband’s family, too. On the day his youngest child (my husband’s aunt) graduated from college in the late 1960s—after she’d received her diploma and exited the dais—my husband’s grandfather stood up and said, “My responsibilities here are finished.” He left the ceremony, skipped the celebratory gathering, and filed for divorce soon after. He became deeply committed to his own physical and spiritual health, and increasingly less responsive to his four children and eleven grandchildren, several of whom he never met. He retired to an estate in Hawaii, where he lived for many years. His family was, in turn, shocked and angry, then sad. He rebuffed their efforts to reunite and eventually died in his nineties, willfully alone.
Recently, my twin boys became B’nai Mitzvah. In accordance with the tradition, we said the Kaddish in honor of those family members who are no longer with us. I gave the rabbi a list of all our deceased relatives, and their names were said aloud before we recited the prayer together during the service. Several days later, one of my sons asked: Didn’t Dad’s grandfather stop speaking to his entire family? When I told him that yes, it was true, my son said it didn’t feel right to have this man’s name listed alongside his other great-grandparents. I told him I understood. But he’s still your great-grandfather, I said. His name and his existence can’t be erased. He’s still part of our figurative family tree.
The family tree! Could there be a better example of our futile longing for permanence? Why was my instinct to keep my husband’s grandfather in the fold even after he’d chosen to leave it? The family tree affirms that family is a fixed reality, despite stories that reveal it to be otherwise. We inscribe our people, their names and their dates. We frame our shared existence, which is so ephemeral, as rooted in the earth.
Did you know, I asked my son, scrambling for something to say, that trees need wind to blow against them because it causes their root systems to grow deeper, which supports the tree as it grows taller?
Yeah, he said. We learned it in sixth grade.
The tree accepts the strong wind as a blessing, I said, trying to stay with the metaphor. Trees can take quite a beating.
Did I mean this? I wanted to. But the words rang false as they tumbled out. I’ve always had the sense that my mother’s side of the family is, in fact, diminished by my uncle’s absence. Or at least diminished in their quiet response to it.
Can a family grow stronger even when some members choose to leave it? Maybe the answer comes back to what the researchers at Emory discovered about family storytelling. If my uncle’s rejection of his family was the crisis I believe it to be, and the story of it had been told accordingly—as a crisis, something the larger family needed to mourn in order to move on from, instead of a story about a strange man who drank the wrong bottle of wine—then maybe his absence wouldn’t have struck me as so dislocating and shameful. So many years later, I recognize that when I went hunting in my grandparents’ attic, I wasn’t really looking for clues about why my uncle opted out of the family. What I was after was the story of how the rest of the family dealt with his absence and made it through, together. But I was never going to get that story, because that resolution never took place.
As far as we know, my uncle is still alive. He collected his small inheritance when my grandparents died. I recently found a video of him on the internet. He’s in Guatemala, wearing shorts and sandals with socks, singing with a group of school children. The video answered no questions, but raised some tantalizing new ones. Was he a school teacher? A volunteer? Had he lived a life of service?
I’m not sure what compels me, exactly, to intermittently type his name into a search engine, but here’s how it feels to recognize someone who I know is part of my family, but otherwise don’t know at all: hopeful. Once my missing uncle was a young man who moved away and didn’t come back. Now he’s an old man who looks just like my late grandfather: gentle, kind, maybe even free.