Thursday, August 18, 2016

Sibling revelry



On the plane back from our second wedding ceremony—this one for family and friends in the greater Seattle area—I started reading a novel about a detective in Dublin who comes from a spectacularly dysfunctional family. He’d left that family decades ago but was back on a case and at one point goes out to the pub for a drink with his brothers and sisters. The uneasy drink ends up becoming an ugly scene of shouting, curses, and fisticuffs, and our angry, inebriated hero staggers out of the bar vowing never to see this fucked-up bunch of people again and wondering why he ever bothered to come back in the first place. 

Thankfully, this scene did not very much resemble my own weekend with family. No one got wasted, no one got punched, and though I was encouraged to smash a cupcake into my husband’s face as per the distasteful wedding reception tradition, I declined. That has always seemed to me like a mean thing to do, along with being a waste of perfectly good dessert. Moreover, quite a few of the extended family members attending were my mother’s siblings from Canada, whom I had never met. When I got to the hall, a cluster of Cantonese-speaking people suddenly mobbed me and cheerfully demanded to know if I knew who they were. “Uh, the Canadians?” I ventured. That was what my mother called them, and that appeared to be the right answer, as they beamed and nodded at me. I wasn’t sure of all their names and I didn’t know why they’d decided to come to the wedding of a niece they’d waited 47 years to meet, but Asian relatives always come bearing cash, so yeah, family! Awesome!

I didn’t end up spending a whole lot of time with my mother’s siblings, though I did get to spend some with my own. It’s just the three of us, my older brother—actually half-brother, from my dad’s first marriage—and my older sister. We don’t have a whole lot in common on paper, so to speak, covering a wide range of educational backgrounds, income levels, and hobbies. As I was reminded during those days, we would seem to have even less in common in terms of certain key personality traits.

My sister carried a printout of an Excel chart she made for the wedding weekend. On it were names, dates, times, meals, locations, and carpool groupings, as well as a few other details. As wrenches got thrown in her plans (as wrenches are wont to do), she carefully crossed off items and wrote in their replacements. It would have been easy to snicker at this bit of hyper-organized anality, but nobody did, because we all knew as well as she did that somebody had to take charge, and that she was best suited to be that somebody. She was wedding planner for me, Julie the Cruise Director for the Canadians, and an in-the-flesh Siri for anyone who needed directions to and from airports, restaurants, and hotels. 

She would probably be horrified if I reminded her that our father used to do the very same thing when we were kids: typed up (as this was before personal computers and thus before Excel charts) a detailed itinerary for each member of the family so we’d know exactly where we would go and what we would do on our well-researched vacation. These days our father exasperates her to no end with his stubborn insistence that he knows the right way to do things, even though his “right way” usually means the way things were done just after World War II ended. Funny thing, though, even though my sister doesn’t share this trait of believing her way is the one true way, she’s got his stubborn insistence thing down in other regards. She often seems weirdly rule-bound to me; once, having received a gift she didn’t want, she nevertheless refused to take it back to the store for a refund or exchange because the gift receipt stated that returns had to be made by a certain already-past date. No matter how hard I tried to tell her that she should try anyway—the return-by date was barely a month old and many stores are flexible about this kind of thing—she was adamant: “No. It’s too late.”

It’s easy to make fun of people who follow the rules; in the movies they are dictatorial killjoys hell-bent on spoiling everyone’s fun at best and suppressing their freedom at worst. But again, I’m not going to do that, because I see that for her, and for a lot of people who are cautious and organized and sticklers for order, following the rules isn’t about forcing other people to bend to your will so much as it is working for the greater good. Seriously. These people follow the rules because to do otherwise would be selfish. If my sister had returned that gift, it would have gone against some aspect of her that believes, I would guess, that it’s necessary to give up your own personal needs for the sake of a principle. And if she had decided, screw it, let my crazy kid sister figure out the logistics of schlepping elderly Cantonese Canadians all over the state, let her actually do some work in planning her own damn wedding—well, she didn’t do that, because she wouldn’t.

My brother, meanwhile, is the guy who stands up in the kayak. The day after the wedding, the siblings, the husband and I went kayaking on a beautiful, sunny day, and because this is the Pacific Northwest and everyone there knows, Ned Stark-like, that winter is coming and with it the end of beautiful, sunny days, a lot of people had the same idea we did. There were kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards, and after my brother spent a few minutes admiring the latter, he suddenly decided he wanted to try it—only without the paddleboard. He stood in his kayak, steadied himself, and carefully began to paddle. 

Dude,” I said, shaking my head. 

“And this is where he falls in the river,” my sister said, shaking her head.

Our brother grinned, kept paddling, kept standing. A little boy saw him, tugged his mother’s sleeve. “I wanna do that!” The horrified mother hustled him away. 

“You’re being a bad influence!” we called. Our brother kept grinning, kept going.

To his credit, he didn’t fall. He used to surf, so his balance is pretty good, but still, kayaks—duh—aren’t made for standing in. He could have gotten a paddleboard in the first place, but that’s not how he has ever rolled. My brother is closer to 60 than 50, but you’d never know it, as he has always looked boyish—and always acted the part. He has the relaxed, easy-going demeanor of a groovy California surfer, without the chest-pounding bad-to-the-boneness, yet he’s always been a rule-breaker. My earliest memory of him, from when he visited us summers when we were kids, was of his sneaking us candy. Our father was into healthy eating long before it was fashionable, and sweets were largely forbidden, so you can imagine the thrill we got when our brother showed up with boxes of chocolates or took us out for ice cream before dinner. As it turns out, that wasn’t all he snuck into the house during those summers.

“I once brought my pet turtle to Hawaii,” he reminisced to us over drinks after kayaking. My sister and the husband had iced tea, I had a hard cider, and my brother had downed two beers and looked like he wanted a third. “Seriously illegal. But I wanted to bring it so I did.” I hadn’t remembered any turtle, but then maybe I’d been too young. He added, “And I always had pot.” I definitely hadn’t remembered the pot. He chuckled, “I had to go down in the drainage ditch by the banana grove to smoke so Dad wouldn’t smell it.” Now he was the one to shake his head. “Dad disapproved of everything I ever did back then. Still does. I never went to college, never settled down, never did whatever he thought I should do. That stuff just wasn’t for me. He doesn’t get that, though. He’ll always think I’m a failure.”

My sister and I nodded sympathetically. Our father was disappointed that my sister never finished grad school. He was disappointed that my third novel contained profanity. One of us could win the Nobel Prize and he’d still be unimpressed. But that’s just how he is. Maybe we all realized early that we weren’t ever going to get his complete approval, so approval from others stopped mattering so much to us.

Funny thing, though: a day later, after my brother had gone back to California, our father told a story about the time my brother got busted for smoking pot. His mother begged my father to talk to the judge and try to get a lenient sentence. In pleading that his son was not a bad kid and wasn’t doing anything all that terrible, my father noted that, really, businessmen who had three-martini lunches were more likely to cause harm than a teenage boy smoking a little weed. Apparently this was a mistake—the judge liked his three-martini lunches as well as the next businessman—but my father had meant what he said. I wondered if my brother even knew about this part of the story.

Even though I’m the youngest, I land squarely in the middle of the spectrum of rule-bound and free-spirited. I spent the morning before the wedding running a 6-hour race and showed up fifteen minutes prior to the start of the ceremony (my running friends and I had to hit the drive-thru at Jack-in-the-Box beforehand for curly fries), which suggests a certain—OK, a definite—disdain for social conventions and formalities. On the other hand, running ultras is about as daring as I get, which means that the craziest thing I do still involves my feet returning to earth frequently and regularly. No surfing, no hang gliding, no shooting the rapids, all things my brother has done; just running, albeit for a long time. And while fueling for ultras sometimes involves questionable substances, the ones I take are all legal.

There is at least one thing we have in common: we’re all kind of oddballs. “Individualistic” would be the cooler, buzzier way to describe us, but however you spin it, the fact is I’m the first of my siblings to get married, and I’m closer to 50 than 40. My brother has always been a serial monogamist, one girl for a few years until he forced her to issue the commitment ultimatum, demanding that either he grow up or she’d move on. They always moved on. My sister has been unlucky in love, plain and simple, though perhaps not so simple; like many people “still single” well into middle age, she has taken the position that she would rather be alone, yet the speech she delivered at my wedding—about finding that person who shares inside jokes and everyday moments and keeps you from ever being lonely again—suggests otherwise. And while our father has a 50-year-marriage to his credit (and an at least amicable divorce before that), none of his progeny has had any desire to emulate him in this way, because quite frankly even the seemingly successful marriage kind of sucks. The three of us have spent most of our adult lives alone, being the people we are.

I have one picture of the three of us from the wedding, and it’s a blurry one, though I guess that works thematically, as we’re not nearly as cleanly defined as I’ve made us out to be in this post. So far my father isn’t in any of the wedding photos I’ve seen, though I suppose you could say he’s present in that picture of his three kids, in a sense. But not entirely. People are never as simple as we think they are, as we perhaps want them to be, so that we can avoid being distracted by their complications and focus solely on our own. Even if I’m still not entirely sure what to make of my siblings or what we are supposed to be to each other, I’m glad I got a chance to spend at least a little time with them before we all went back to trying to figure out our individual, oddball lives.