I was watching golf a few weeks ago with my grandfather, not paying much attention until he informed me that the whole day could all come down to the last few shots. He explained that with only two holes left, the golfer in second place had an advantage over the leader, who only had one hole left. I wondered aloud, “but what if the second place golfer is also at a disadvantage because he has more opportunities to screw up? What if he hits his ball in the water?” My mind always seeing the opposing view. My grandfather assured me that this would never happen at this level of the game. We turned back to the television as the golfer, who could have stolen the lead on this hole, proceeded to hit the ball into the water. Not once, not twice, but THREE times in the last two holes. Grandpa looked at me with his mouth open, incredulous, as if by putting it out into the universe, I was somehow responsible for this elite golfer tumbling from second to eighth place at the end of this tournament. We stared in disbelief at each other for a while; it was a moment to remember for us both.
I have zero interest in golf—in watching, in playing, in understanding; it is not a sport that I care to follow. I watch it with him, for him. For all of the times I made him watch The Smurfs, or worse, My Little Pony. For the time I made him watch Pretty Woman when I was twelve, and didn’t even have the decency to squirm during the R-rated sex scenes. For all of the concerts and recitals and musicals he attended, pretty much all of them, long after proclaiming that I sounded like I was crying when I sang along with Whitney Houston (I Get So Emotional too Whitney). For every Christmas where we woke him up too early, and begged for his undivided attention before he even had a sip of his coffee…I watch golf.
This I can do with him, for him, sit by his side as he drinks his red wine and whiles away a Sunday.
My grandfather turned 94 this weekend, surrounded by his four daughters and various assorted grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He didn’t want a “fuss” but ended up in the middle of a reservation for 25 at a restaurant very forgiving of the chaos that we brought and the 300 photographs we took. We were missing a few, but the majority of his family was gathered around to toast him as he discreetly brushed away a tear and uncomfortably accepted our cheers.
I looked around at my cousins, and their children. At their parents, my aunts and uncles, and at my Grandfather. There’s a freedom being with your family that is difficult to find elsewhere. The facades crumble and the pretenses drop, as you become you at your most authentic, for better or sometimes for worse.
We fall back initially into the roles that we were assigned so many years ago, like characters in a play the never ends: The Kind One, The Responsible One, The Baby, The Oldest, The Successful One, The Anxious One, The Difficult One, The Agreeable One, The Generous One, The One Who Pushes Boundaries, The Shy One, The Screw-Up, The Prodigy. We are comfortable here. We’ve practiced these roles and know all of the lines and gestures by heart. We are with the people who have to love us, almost by definition, so it’s easy to regress.
And then, with our now adult wisdom, we do our best to break away from these narrow and limited roles we were once cast in, and we try out some of the other parts. We struggle to prove that we are The Responsible One and The One Who Pushes Boundaries. That we can be The Difficult One and The Agreeable One. We show off how much we have changed, how much more we are than just these single-faceted personas. How rich and developed our characters now are, far more complex than originally intended. How the kids we were at five, or ten, are not who we are now, these semblances of grownups we have become. Because of course we are more. Of course we are all ALL of these things.
Around us are the memories, the stories that have become our legacies. Around us is the history we share.
You are seated next to the one who patiently brought you along to the movies when you were ten and she was seventeen, and who later mailed her (already legal) driver’s license to your freshman dorm so you could get into college bars before turning 21. You are near the ones you looked up to, who always seemed so much older and cooler but who never treated you like you were just an annoying kid. You are across from the ones who lived the farthest but shared the most: from vacations and home videos, to secrets and inside jokes; from a single red coat with gold buttons to Halloween costumes that were passed along to the next younger one every year.
These tables are filled with those who have seen your braces and your acne and your tantrums and the one perm you got in sixth grade. You in turn have seen their questionable fashion choices and wild 80’s Jersey hair, their breakdowns and breakthroughs, their incredible metamorphosis from children to parents.
These are the people you are obligated to love, the ones you look like, the ones whose blood is tied to your own. But you realize, as you are now mostly grown, as the family expands and contracts through the years, that you really like them too. That these were the ones you would have chosen, if you’d ever been given the choice. These are the people who shape you, who support you, who love you, who are a part of you.
This is your family. For better, for worse, and everything in between. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Happy Birthday my beloved Grandpa.