There are parents, bad parents and great parents. I had parents. My cousins had great parents.
While I loved my father dearly, he was an indifferent parent most of the time since he was usually overseas with the army or working two jobs. He was a quiet presence in the house when he was home, spending time with his pigeons and plants where he lavished attention on them he didn't feel comfortable or able to lavish on us. I never doubted my father's love, even though it took him the first twenty years of my life to be able to say the words, but he was never really involved in our lives in the way my uncle and aunt were involved in their children's lives.
Maybe it was because my aunt stayed at home until my cousins were nearly teenagers and kept a garden that kept her and the whole family busy, or maybe it was because every spare moment and ounce of energy went into being involved with my cousins that makes the different. When my aunt finally did go out to work it was for her children; she wanted to give them the chance to go to college and that cost money. Working was my aunt's way of ensuring her family's future even though they had enough without her working; it was all for her children. None of us went to college, even though I was offered scholarships and hoped beyond hope to go to college, because my mother said they couldn't afford it. What my aunt willingly sacrificed, my mother refused to give up. If we went to college, we'd have to do it on our own.
When I look at my cousins, I see a family that after all these years is still close and still together, a great clan that keeps growing with every new addition to the family, a family that embraces each new member as one of their own. What started with five children has become a tribe, partly because of divorces and children with new spouses, and grandchildren that are having their own children, and so on.
When my aunt and uncle joined us at my grandparents' home for a Sunday or holiday dinner, it was controlled bedlam, but what I remember most is how my uncle called his family together to leave: "Head 'em up. Move 'em out." My uncle was our own Gil Favor and his family the cattle he was driving home, but it was far more intimate and personal than that. Whatever we were doing, his family was glad to go home together.
I envied their yearly vacations in Florida for the Christmas holidays, but I realize now that what I really envied was their closeness. They had their spats and disagreements like every family, yet they always pulled together. Our family was more separate, more individual, which is a good thing on some levels, but not conducive to that family environment, that sense of being together through thick and thin.
My uncle told me that all he wanted from his mother was recognition and acknowledgement of what he had accomplished. Several of his children went to college, and one graduated. Most of his grandchildren have gone or are going to college, and two brave souls opted for the military life and have done well, my second cousin Michael having served several tours in Iraq. What my uncle failed to get from his mother, he lavished on his children. He is a doting grandfather, a loving father and a man who has reaped some fairly rich rewards for all his hard work, financially and personally. His family has stayed together while our family fell apart when my father died three years ago. My father was the glue that held our family loosely together.
Now, as I get older, I miss the family connection and closeness that I see all the time in my uncle and aunt's family and I reach for it with my own, failing because the chasm that separates us is too wide. My youngest sister and I have always been close, and she and I were as close as anyone could get to my father, who was afraid of getting too close, loving to much, because it always ended in death. His mother died when he was ten and his father left for greener romantic pastures soon after. The younger children were farmed out to relatives who passed the kids around like clothes too soon outgrown and the older children were forced to find their own way. My father worked as a bell boy in a hotel that catered to ladies who entertained gentlemen above stairs for an hour or two.
Because my father was afraid of losing people he cared about, he kept his emotions to himself, quietly hidden from us and often from himself. You can't lose what you don't openly love. Yet we all knew he loved us and we stuck around to be close to him. Mom was a different story altogether. She lavished gifts on us, but mostly on herself. Her way was the way of commerce: the more you give, the more it appears you love. We didn't want things -- okay, we did want some things -- what we wanted was someone who was more interested in us than in the next white sale at Lazarus or buying jewelry and furniture.
We had a nice home and my uncle's home was a bit shabby around the edges. Their clothes always smelled faintly of mildew because they had to take the clothes to the laundromat to dry, and five kids use a lot of towels and clothes. We went on vacations and had big Christmases with lots of gifts while my uncle and his family had a much smaller Christmas and went to Florida every year. We seemed to have more things and lived in a nicer house while my uncle lived in a cramped two bedroom house and actually had more.
The summers I spent with my aunt and uncle were filled with sunshine, laughter and work. We helped in the garden and combed the local dump for treasures. We picked blackberries and raspberries and sold what we didn't eat next to the house on the road. We bothered poor old Dan, their horse, by vaulting onto his back from a small rise near the back porch while he stood stolidly and took our childish glee and weight without moving, except once to step on my toe. We played at school and put together beauty pageants in my uncles basement one year and then spilled out into the garage. My mother bought old cocktail and prom dresses from Goodwill, but my aunt helped us tear them apart and put them together in new ways.
My aunt taught us to preserve the vegetables from the gardens and filled us with corn on the cob, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, lettuce and green beans with bacon simmered long and slow on the stove with onions for a day and a half. My mother taught us how to get bargains at the supermarket.
My aunt and uncle are hands-on parents who live a rich life, financially and emotionally, with their expanding family gathered round at the high points of the year. My family marks the high points with emails and phone calls, and letters from me, while we plan our dinners separately. It's kind of hard to share Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter when we all live separate lives.
I still envy my uncle's family. Whenever someone needs help, like my youngest cousin Gayle, who is going through divorce and a bitter custody battle, my uncle and aunt pitch in to watch her five children or take the kids for a weekend so Gayle can take a break. They circle the wagons and I imagine my uncle calling, "Head 'em up and move 'em out" as the family gathers close around the fire.
It's not really envy, but a heartfelt wish to be a part of a family like that. Since that doesn't seem possible as my family pulls farther and farther apart, I work to build that with my sons and their families. Great parents have to begin somewhere, and all I know I learned from the May clan, my uncle's family.