This is a long and rambling self-indulgent post. I needed to clear my head before the weekend and this seemed a good place to air it out. Lots of half-formed and inconclusive thoughts in an essentially boring post...
My partner and I are traveling up to his sister’s wedding this weekend. He use to always, before we met up with anyone in his family, warn me that they weren’t like people in my family, that they weren’t like people I know. I heard those precautions less and less as I got to know his relatives and as he realized that I wasn’t going to dump him just because of who he’s related to. Last Sunday, however, he started up with the warnings again so I know his nerves about the upcoming weekend, where the whole mass of his family will be gathered in one place, are aroused. His common refrain is “This isn’t going to be anything like your brother’s wedding.” Or “Don’t expect fancy speeches from my relatives; most weddings in my family end in a fight.”
I met his sister for the first time not quite two years after R and I started dating. She’d been estranged from her family for a few years at that point, living several states away, was in an abusive relationship and flirting with a meth habit. Efforts by R and her parents to extricate her from the relationship and the drugs had failed. Her parents particularly had fallen victim to her lies and substantial theft and finally had closed the door to any form of support. My partner, R, maintained a sporadic correspondence with her, serving as an intermediary with their parents to let them know she was still alive.
I met Callie around midnight in the hours after she’d fled her apartment, carrying nothing, literally running for her life. She made it to a friend’s house wearing shorts and tank top and sandals. She had no ID, no phone, nothing. She called R from her friend’s house. Callie was finally ready to make the break and get away from the guy who’d had such a hold over her. R called me at work and said he was catching the next flight out. The plan was to meet Callie, possibly retrieve her stuff, rent a U-Haul and drive her back to California. He was on the way to the airport as we spoke and asked if I could call down and get them a room for a couple nights in a motel near the airport.
R had done an internship in college with a nonprofit that works with victims of domestic violence. Between that and his current career in law enforcement, he knew that the period of time where Callie was willing to make that break, where she had courage and the fear and adrenaline to beat feet, might be very small. He wanted to get as much support in place for her as he could. I offered to join them down there and help with the drive back. He gladly accepted while cautioning me that this might all be a scam for money, that Callie may abruptly change her mind, that any number of things could go wrong.
She didn’t change her mind.
Callie owned a pick-up truck and we rented a trailer for the back. We scouted out her apartment and when the boyfriend left for his job, we made quick work of loading up her stuff. I know R was most nervous at this point. The potential for violence if the boyfriend returned was huge. In conversation with me, he had debated on whether to call the local police for a stand by as Callie moved out. He’d ultimately decided against it. Callie swore up and down that she had no outstanding warrants, but R wasn’t sure she was telling the truth on that point and having her arrested would just delay the whole getting her out of town plan.
R basically stood by the trailer and Callie and I walked back and forth loading it up. He said that he was keeping an eye out for the boyfriend. That was true. But he was also watching every single thing that Callie identified as hers that was going into the truck. He wanted absolutely no accusations coming her way (or ours) that anything had been stolen. In the end, it was a small cache of items we transported. Her clothes and toiletries, a few pictures, some music and some pieces of furniture that R could identify as having been given to her by their parents. Anything they had bought jointly, he insisted she leave behind. There was more than one screaming match (and I mean literally screaming by Callie), but on this R was firm. It was his way or the two of us walked and she was on her own.
Callie had managed to avoid a hardcore drug habit, but she did use and the last time she’d used had been about 48 hours prior. In the years since, she’s apologized to me many times for those meltdowns and the handful of additional ones that peppered the drive up to northern California. As she explains it, the remnants of the drugs along with the uncertainty of her future, the abandonment of the life she’d known for so many years, contributed to the extreme emotional lability. I’ve assured her repeatedly that apologies are no longer necessary.
The boyfriend never showed up and with a partially filled U-Haul trailer, we hit the road. We drove straight through, the three of us taking turns behind the wheel for two days and two nights. We crossed the desert during one of the days, which is beautiful country in its own way and not a part of the U.S. I’d ever seen. We hit southern California in the middle of the night. It was a year where wildfires had caused widespread evacuations and road closures. We saw them burning, the distant glow and smoky haze adding an apocalyptic overtone to the journey. We spoke little, each of us wrapped up in our thoughts.
Our destination was Callie and R’s parents. Through a good deal of mediation by R, they had agreed that she could come home for a short period of time. He still held that this was the real deal for Callie – she was ready to stay clean and stay away from her ex. All this mediation happened by phone during pit stops as we drove. He didn’t want to talk in front of Callie, have these conversations that argued and cajoled and guilted them into helping her one more time. His back-up plan for her was a half-way house for battered women near our place. But, he wasn’t sure he could get her in there and the one bedroom apartment where we were living at the time was not an option for many reasons. In any case, their parents came through.
Callie only stayed with them a short time but when she left they did give her some financial support. After about a year, she requested a loan for schooling in one of the trades.
The second time I met her was during the graduation ceremony from that school. She already was a much different person than the individual I’d gotten to know on that strange journey from the southern states. She was calmer and more confident. She had found God, gotten saved, been folded into an evangelical congregation. She’d accomplished something with completing the schooling but she seemed hesitant to own the accomplishment. I think it might have been the first thing she’d ever fully achieved as an adult. She seemed shy about claiming it.
The dinner with R and Callie and their parents after her graduation brought a clarity to me of why R was always warning me about his family. They communicate by bickering. Strange, but I’d learned to ignore the constant pettiness of their comments towards one another. It did bother me that night though. I mean Callie’s parents were there which implied some sort of support for her. But, I never once heard them say “congratulations” or “good job” or any equivalent. Her mother spent the dinner questioning Callie on why she’d chosen that particular trade. She was of the opinion that it had probably been a waste of time, that any of the other offerings by the school would have been a better choice. Her father told her she’d play hell trying to get a job in that field as a woman and even if she ever did get hired she’d never be treated fairly by the men on the crew. The “celebratory” dinner was a complete cutting down of the choices Callie had made.
R and Callie have told me that neither of them can recall one time where their parents ever congratulated them on anything. Neither of them can recall one instance of a compliment. Every decision is met with criticism of some sort. Every decision is a wrong-headed one. Independently, I've never heard them say anything flattering about anyone. Conversation at their house is a stream of consciousness criticism about everything and everyone. From the President (Bush and Obama have come in for equal criticism) right on down to a 2 year old niece - every one they year of or know are stupid and wrongheaded and their actions are incomprehensible.
R’s epiphany that his parent’s view of the world was bitter and cynical came at the age of 12. He said he was sitting at the dinner table, listening to the squabbling and cutdowns and thought very clearly “These people are crazy.” He knew right then that he was going to do everything he could not to turn out the same way. He was lucky to realize that so young. Callie’s road to that realization was much rougher.
She did get a job, a good one. She has gained some seniority in her field and in the seven years she’s worked with her crew, she’s been the only woman there. She did go to her union at one point for support on a gender discrimination charge and she won. She’s also become deeply involved in her church and R and I have come in for some heartfelt lectures from her on our sinful lifestyle. Religious literature makes its way to our home on a regular basis.
I am looking forward to the upcoming weekend, and I am dreading it. I am happy for Callie and so, so proud of her. She’s marrying some guy from her church and he’ll look at my partner and me like he’s smelling a turd. She did invite us, though, and I think at some level is glad to have us there even if she believes she needs to save us. I can’t really fault her for embracing the church. I don’t know if she’d have made the long term recovery she has without it. In a way, it did save her.
Callie and R’s parents will smile grimly through the ceremony and then my partner and I will hear a litany of complaints once the reception is over. When it’s the four of us, we’ll hear all about the horrible choices the couple made with the ceremony, the reception, etc. etc. I am sure that when they’re back from the honeymoon, R's parents will be on the phone with Callie complaining about the two of us! People are complex and family relationships more so. Over the years I’ve done my best to not be drawn in to their pettiness, not be baited into an argument. I try my best to serve as some sort of buffer between R and the rest of his family.
Fact is, though, he'll come back from the weekend deflated and discouraged. It takes a lot out of him to be around his family. The extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins is even harder. They're all cut from a similar cloth and for a lot of the others the whole gay and transgendered side doesn't help. There are a couple of cool people, though, and I can only hope the more negative interactions are as brief as possible.
I should really give my folks a call and tell them what an awesome job they did raising my brothers and me.