Last week, I was in North Carolina sitting on a lawn chair watching a lot of Jeopardy.
The living room of the tiny beach house just has a love-seat, and my mom and grandma were already forced to share that space with my dog. So, I dragged in a lawn chair and yelled out incorrect responses that I always forgot to put in the form of a question.
Three generations (well, four, if you count the dog, and you should always count the dog) were vacationing under one roof for five days. At ages 35, 57 and 85 – we all seemed to be just different versions of ourselves. It could have been the backdrop of a Tennessee Williams play.
Everyone’s families are complicated and contradictory. That’s just the reality of family dynamics. Families are loving and brutal. They are intimate and they are strangers. They are accepting and critical. They are all those things, intertwined with memories and expectations and the desire to make you another cup of tea.
But through all the inherent messiness, there are important moments that come from spending extended time with family. Like hearing the story of how my 20-year-old Grandma would flirt with the guys she worked with at the newspaper, so that they would give her cigarettes. She didn’t smoke, but she’d tuck them away and give them to her boyfriend — that broke boy would eventually be my grandfather.
My mother knows the first album I ever bought, even though I’ve forgotten. She remembers exactly when I attempted to expand beyond the Carole King and Earth, Wind and Fire that pervaded my early musical education. It’s so easy for me to revert back to those days. Mom still uses phases of discontent, like “Shootski pootski” and “Ishkablibble’ that catapult me back to a time when I wore a fringed jean jacket and thought those were legitimate swears.
In this company, many sentences start with “Do you remember…?” – a person, a place, a time in space that feels so removed from this. So far from this 1,000 square foot beach shack with windows that don’t close properly and a finicky toilet handle. But here, over the sound of bickering seagulls, we remember our shared past.
As much as all this reminds me of my history, it also grounds me in the present. I see the grey streak I started to notice in my hair in my mid-20s, reflected back at me. That grey expands into my mom’s salt and pepper hair. It expands further into my grandma’s silver shine.
We are not women who dye.
All this shared DNA and shared experiences express themselves in distinctive ways. We are decidedly different women, with different outlooks and ways of understanding the world — but when I see my mom and grandma sharing gestures, I wonder if I do them, too. It’s like an archeological dig of your own existence, except instead of discovering broken bits of pottery, I’m looking at a woman making an egg salad sandwich.
My mother has put a quote (most commonly attributed to the great poet, Dr. Seuss) on the bathroom wall of the beach house.
I’m reminded where I get my sense of truth-telling from. That no-hair-dye honesty is strong in all three of us. It’s both a blessing and a curse. That same honesty that brings us closer has also hurt feelings and gotten us into trouble and damaged relationships. The truth is powerful, and I want to use it carefully. Sometimes honesty needs to be sheathed in kindness to soften the blow. Sometimes we are skilled at that, sometimes we are not.
I wonder, as I make my way through the years, what family traits I will keep, what habits I will let go, and if my hair will turn out to be the perfectly shiny silver of my grandmother’s.
I watched a lot of Jeopardy last week and I realized that it’s the perfect analogy for life. Because life is all about asking the right questions.
The answers take care of themselves.