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Commentary: Families

By David Park Musella

Buffalo, NY – Families are odd, somewhat ungainly creatures, always getting in the way or underfoot at just the wrong time. For all the bollocks and bother, there are times when I would almost sell mine for the right price, just to be free of it. Almost but I'd never go through with it, because I know that I'd be out again the next day, buying it back at twice what I got for it. I love my family, and if I lost it, it would be worth any price to regain.

Families are intricate, imperfect machineries, the small motors that help to turn the greater wheels of society and the world. At their best, they are the first and the last places where we can go for strength and support. They'll build you up when you've been knocked low and bring you down a peg when you get too big for your proverbial britches. They make the most of what they have, even you; and if they complain, they do it with you, not of you.

Families are worlds unto themselves, landscapes of memory and expectation, inhabited by persons both living and dead. Not all of those places are pleasant, safe, and warm, I know, but mine is. Those of us who can say that should be grateful and should remember to thank whomever we have to be grateful to. We should start, perhaps, by thanking those who share those familial milieus.

Families are also extremely mutable entities, changing and renewing through marriages, births, and, inevitably, deaths. These are the milestones that remind us who and what we are, and whom we have with us, especially when they involve the persons who are closest and most significant to us.

My mother died recently, which struck a grievous blow to the members of my family, collectively and individually. She was the glue that held this disparate mob together, the nucleus around which we eccentric electrons spun. Without her centering gravity, we may spin off and lose track of one another, and even ourselves. But if we can use what gravity we retain to keep ourselves in a binding network, compelling but not constraining, I think we'll be fine.

To my mother, the holidays, especially Christmas, were of supreme importance. And she always worked hard to make them memorable for us, her children, despite our family's less-than-extravagant means. Whether that meant staying up half the night, making sure that every strand of tinsel was hung to perfection on the tree, or getting up at the crack of dawn, ahead of us early-rising children, and going outside in my father's galoshes to track in mysterious, snowy boot prints, she spared no effort. Once, when I was a small child, she saw an animated cardboard figure in a store, advertising some brand of beer, brandishing a grilling fork and a six-pack. She talked the store's owner into giving it to her when the promotion was over, brought it home, and, with some extra cardboard, red felt, cotton, Christmas wrap, and simple ingenuity, transformed it into Santa Claus, not just bearing gifts but waving them in the air. For years, I've affected a pious disregard for Christmas. I'm not a religious person, so what does a holiday that's essentially religious mean to me? But until this year, I hadn't realized that I'd been attending the yuletide vicariously, through my mother, doing as much with her as her declining health allowed, even when it meant just a quick look at the Christmas merchandise on display at the local supermarkets and hanging up a string or two of garland these last years.

This will be the first Christmas since our loss, and I think that we're all braced for it, the way you steel yourself against a hard chill when you've no choice but to walk through it. It's called getting on with life necessary, but no one says it's going to be pleasant or easy. You get hold of yourself and you gather close what you have to protect you from the unexpectedly harsh elements.

Now, I'm in a new phase of my life, a time without living parents, my father having died some years ago. My sister says that we're orphans, but I don't feel that way. This seems like something else I'm not sure precisely how to describe it. Think of a moment when, for the first time, you were in a swimming pool that was deeper than you were tall. Maybe you were clinging to the side, not ready to let go and swim out into the deep water. Maybe you were shivering, from chill or from fear. And when you looked up, maybe your mother was there, and maybe she smiled at you, letting you know that it was going to be all right.

Here I go, Mom.

Listener-Commentator David Park Musella is a poet and writer who lives in Amherst.

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