If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.
Thich Nhat Hanh
My mom thinks that the last time she saw her brother Junior, he was going to pick tomatoes in Indiana to earn some extra money; he was in his teens then. (I know she saw him later, but this is how she remembers it.) My Uncle Joe remembers seeing Junior in Chicago in the early 1950s and only realized much later that he was probably the last person in the family to see his brother alive. My Aunt Eve can't remember the last time she saw her younger brother, but she remembers going with other members of the family to get his ashes and his things when he died. All of Junior's siblings have a tinge of sadness in their voices when they talk about their "missing" brother. My mother has a framed picture of her brother. Last summer, out of curiosity, I took the picture out of it's frame and turned it over to see if there was anything written on the back. "My brother, Elmer Jr. Loy, two years older than me," was written in my mother's handwriting. Not long after that picture was taken, Junior walked out of her life just as surely as he walked out of her parent's lives.
I don't have any answers about family estrangements. I wish I did, but there are as many answers and outcomes as there are families. And so, I thought I'd tell what I know about how my mother's brother became estranged from his family and how that estrangement lasted a lifetime. The estrangement began because Junior resented his father. As my uncle told me, "He didn't think he was done right by." My mother's family was a close-knit one who lived in a small rural community where everyone knew everyone else, so Uncle Junior couldn't have visited the family without seeing his father and, apparently, he was willing to sacrifice his whole family to avoid that possibility. And if he thought of the sadness he was causing his mother, he didn't let that convince him to go home. Or maybe it wasn't that way at all. Maybe he was too proud to come home and then as months stretched into years, he didn't have the money or he was too ashamed. We'll never know because he died when he was in his 50s in Salt Lake City, Utah without having spoken to anyone from his family. Ironically, he died alone in a place where the passion for genealogy is intense. However, I know he still kept his family in his heart because he left a note with his landlord that if anything happened to him, they should contact his oldest brother Dellous, and Junior left Dellous's phone number. I assume, that's how Junior's family found out about his death. (photo: my mother and her younger brother Clifton, Kentucky, circa 1960)
Several of Junior's siblings drove across the country to get his ashes (he had been cremated) and brought them back to Kentucky, where they were buried in the family cemetery. It was early August, then, and I imagine it was hot and humid; the cicadas would have been shrilling in the heat of the day and the tobacco would have been getting tall and lush and green. People stayed in their air conditioned cars and homes as much as they could, but they would have been out in the heat of the day at the cemetery when they laid what was left of my uncle to rest. I'm sure people were crying and sweating and hugging each other and talking of the man-child they once knew. Junior left his family and they forgave him and gathered to mourn his life and his absence. That provided a sense of closure the way rituals always do. Junior came home in death, if not in life.
That's one take-away from this post: you can leave your family, but you can't make them quit loving you. Family ties are enduring and people yearn for connection. "Take care of yourself and live a long time," a friend of mine told me, "because maybe one day your daughter will want to see you again." I hold onto that hope. My alternative is bitterness and anger and I'm trying hard not to go down that path because while I cannot control what she does, I can still love her. And I would be surprised if she doesn't think of me with love too, even if she hasn't mustered up the energy or courage or whatever she needs to pick up the phone and call me. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I do believe that love can overcome many obstacles.
How long would you continue to hope that a reconciliation was possible between yourself and an estranged family member?
Finally, A Long Time Traveller by the Wailin' Jennys.