Every year, my buddy Bandie would come back from her family reunion with a T-Shirt that said Orman Family and the date, and stories–hysterical stories–about the funny things her aunts and uncles and cousins did over horseshoes and barbecue, in the lake or on a tennis court. I was so jealous. I wanted that sense of expansion and roots, presided over by a wise and loving grandparent–if possible, TWO wise and loving grandparents, still thoroughly committed to each other and their families after years and years and years of work and stress and history. Grandparents, so happy and proud of their extended family, that they gathered them together insistently, year after year.
Instead, what I had was a very nice immediate family–although my siblings were all boys, and I would have loved a girl to confide in, share clothes with, a girl with whom I could make messes in the kitchen, halving clean-up and hoarding secrets. Our grandparents were dead (or gone deliberately missing, and then dead years later) before I was born. Each of my parents was one of seven children–and my father’s father remarried and had another seven children. But we only ever visited with one aunt and uncle on either side.
For a treat on special days, my mother allowed me to pore over the books and boxes of old family photos, black and white shots with crimped white edges. The photos revealed faces that were vaguely familiar in their family resemblance, though they were folks I’d never seen. I wished, again and again, that I could know my uncles and aunts and cousins. And always, my father would respond, darkly, “Be careful what you wish for.”
So we had our just-us family holidays and picnics, very nice affairs, but I reveled in invitations when friends had big extended family do’s–I liked spying on what other families did and how they acted, how all those separate people came together and created a whole new entity. We lived about 60 miles from the city of my parents’ birth; some of their siblings still remained there, and very occasionally the placid surface of our once-removed life would be broken.
I remember an uncle from my father’s second seven siblings arriving with his suitcase on a summer day. I remember my father taking the suitcase and throwing it, and my uncle, outside. Some remonstrations from my mother, and my father, cursing in unusual fashion, put uncle and suitcase in car and delivered them someplace, returning home darkened and uncommunicative.
I remember my mother discovering, decades after she had last seen him, an obituary for a man with my grandfather’s name. If that was indeed my grandfather, he too had gone on to re-marry and have another seven children. Angry, embittered, my mother and her close sister Annie did not care to find out more.
I remember a brief, eruptive phone call from my father’s estranged sister: she wanted money; he hung up.
“‘You won’t help your own sister?'” he mimicked bitterly. “As if she was ever a sister to me.”
The waters closed over the interruptions; I wondered about those violent little episodes. Life went on.
Once, after my youthful divorce, when I was cobbling together a living working four or five part-time jobs, a pretty young woman came to the door where I was baby-sitting. She was selling magazines, and for some reason, very unlike my wont, I listened to her. We wound up chatting on the porch swing, and I discovered she was my first cousin.
Of course, then, I ordered a magazine or two, worrying about scraping up the thirty or forty dollars it would cost, but wanting to help a long lost family member who seemed definitely down on her luck. She left the receipt, upside down, on the porch table. “I do feel funny about this, since we’re family,” she said, and she hurried away, down the street and around the corner.
The children I was watching were fractious; I ran to separate some fighters, get dinner underway, clean up a spill, and didn’t get back to the receipt for half an hour.
When I flipped it over, I saw why she felt so funny; the bill was for over $500.00.
I thought of lonely, elderly folks falling prey to her pretty charms and winding up helpless with a huge magazine bill they would scrimp and save to pay. I called the company and cancelled my order. I called the police and ratted out my cousin; they picked her up and escorted her out of the city.
The years have blunted my curiosity, my desire to know my extended family, although I don’t think the impulse ever entirely dies. So I understand Kit’s crusade in Julia Glass’s And the Dark Sacred Night.
The title is from Louis Armstrong’s song, “What a Wonderful World”–the line that goes, “The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night…” In the world Glass creates, Kit’s world, the blessed day is the present, and the sacred night is the past. And it’s important, Kit believes, to understand and accept the past, to know where it is he comes from.
So Kit, at a frantic and troubled time in his own life, goes on a search for his birth father. The trail takes him back to a beloved stepfather, Jasper. Daphne, Kit’s mom, divorced Jasper to marry a man who would give her another baby. Kit, in high school, chose to stay with Jasper.
As an adult, though, the cord connecting him to his stepdad had grown thin and dusty from lack of use.
The visit with Jasper leads Kit, finally, to his father’s family, and to a dawning relationship with his grandmother, his aunt and uncle, and his grandfather, a state senator who’d recently been the victim of a stroke. The discoveries cause eddies; the eddies draw more people into their path. The disruption leads to growth, to deeper knowing, to new relationships…and also to a tragedy.
It was wonderful to see Fenno, Glass’s thoroughly decent protagonist from Three Junes, again, and to know that, although he’d lost his bookstore, he’d found love with a kind and honorable man. The character of Lucinda, met in that first book, enlarges in And the Dark Sacred Night, becomes three dimensional, admirable, likable, lovable.
Glass is a master, I think, at painting people with her words. None of her characters are perfect, none saccharine-sweet; they are sympathetic and wartily-real. Daphne could be simply a selfish woman, uprooting her son and leaving a good man for a chance to have a late in life baby; but we meet her years later, and we see the marriage works. She loves her son; she has the grace to be sorry. Zeke, the grandfather, arrogant and presumptive, can open his heart and embrace Kit. Walter, Fenno’s lover, suspicious and fearful of Fenno’s past, welcomes Kit and his extended family with grace and compassion.
They’re unusual, they’re fragile and flawed, Glass’s people, but they hope and they grow. Kit is lucky in the family he finds, even though they may offer nothing that he expected. His mission brings him connections and re-connections, and a realization about what makes a man a father.
I think about the search for family in this electronic age, reading a friend request from the grown daughter of a cousin I remember meeting only once, and that as a very young child. I have never met the daughter; I didn’t know of her existence until she surfaced on FaceBook.
I hesitate; is this a door I want to open? What do I know about these people? How much do I want to know?
I hear the whisper of my father’s voice: Be careful what you wish for.
I think what Kit learned is that what you have, what you’ve built–your self, your relationships, home and family, friends and meaningful work–are the bulwark. Although he wasn’t aware of that bastion at the book’s beginning, it’s what enabled him to shine a flashlight into the darkness and accept what he found there.
I hit a key; I add a friend. Let’s just see what things look Iike in the brightness of the blessed day.