The Family Story
The First Parish of Watertown
May 4, 2014
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from Days and Nights in Calcutta Clark Blaise
Family, family, family. In India all is finally family. If we in the West suffer from the nausea of disconnectedness and alienation; the Indian suffers the oppression of kinship. If our concept of the hero implies isolation, risk, and silent bravery, the Indian concept of the hero is tied up with social duty, and solicitousness. We naturally link maturity with independence and self creation, and consider a break with family “an inevitable part of growing up.” But in India you can be a hero by taking care of your family; by embracing them as your destiny, and your identity.
Reading from Pioneer Girl, by Bich Minh Nguyen (Bic Min Ngoo eey en)
Although this book is a novel, it is also a bit of a biography of Rose Wilder, whose mother wrote the Little House on the Prairie books. The author is a Vietnamese American who grew up obsessed with these books, and is now a professor of American literature at the University of San Francisco.
Now it is May, the month of my father’s birthday, and I am packing up again. Whatever will fit in my car. The rest to sell, give away, leave on the curb.
Whenever the Ingalls family moved, Ma took extra care with her china shepherdess figurine and a decorative wooden bracket that Pa had carved for her. That these were objects of design, for pleasure rather than utility, has always stayed with me. And so I take particular care of the gold pin that I have, in some sense, inherited from Rose… I take my computer full of notes and pages, my writing, whatever that will turn out to be. I retain, always, in the back of my mind, the twinges and fringes of guilt about my family – more unfinished pages. Maybe it is my chronic, lifetime, second generation problem. Looking forward and looking back, trying to locate the just-right space in between. Always translating, and often getting the words wrong. Trying to figure out the clearest line of narrative, only to find more knots, more clouds. So far I have spent almost half my life thinking about American literature, and the landscape has seemed one of incredible, enduring, relentless longing. Everyone is always leaving each other, chasing down the next seeming opportunity. Where does it stop? Does it? I want to believe it all leads to something grander than the imagination, grander than the end-stop of the Pacific.
… I will load up my car. Like millions before me, I will try a new town, no doubt moving again in a year or two, on the lookout for work and the next better place to be. I will gather my belongings. I will worry about what I’ve forgotten. I will never feel ready, but I will start driving because I have to, toward the prairies, and the hoped for landscape that always lies just beyond, to the west.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House on the Prairie fame, once wrote “Home is the nicest word there is.” I found myself thinking that on Monday night – the sentence just popped full-grown into my head, like a visit from Athena. I was at the library, along with Johanna and Roger Erickson and a few dozen other folks, watching the film Philomena. If you haven’t seen this, I recommend it, although the story is almost unbearably painful. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t had a chance to see it, but I will tell you that Philomena has spent almost fifty years looking for a child taken from her, and though she wanted him to have had a good life, she also worried that he might not have missed her; longed for her the way she longed for him. So it is both heart breaking and an enormous relief when she learns that her son always wanted to go home. As good as his life was, he just wanted to go home – to the place he was once with her.
It is such an evocative word, home. We are not talking about our literal houses, the places where we dwell. We are talking about something far deeper and less materialistic, and yet it is dependent on a concrete place, too. Really what we seem to mean are the feelings aroused by a certain time and setting; the geography of our memories. It almost always sounds like we are trying to recover something. Often the people who paint compelling portraits of home are the ones who have spent a long, long time wandering in the wilderness; or people who never had a chance to completely settle in. Think Odysseus, trying to get back to Ithaca and Penelope. Think Martin Luther King echoing Moses: I have been to the mountain top, and seen the promised land, and though I may not get there with you, we as a people will. We will get home.
Originally what I planned to talk about this week was not quite “home,” but family. Last month, on a tour of Orchard House with a group from church, a simple statement the guide made about Louisa May Alcott struck me. It wasn’t new information, but I heard it a new way – she said that Alcott herself had gone off to help during the Civil war, but of course she couldn’t write that in her book, so she made a story in which her father did. Somehow, I suddenly grasped how Louisa’s identity was unacceptable – possibly to her self; or to her family; not to mention to the book buying public, and what that cost her. And in addition to minimizing her own strength, she had to make her father far more heroic than he was. In real life, the Alcotts wandered from home to home and never quite had any security. Bronson Alcott was not good at keeping jobs or at practical details. And yet many Americans grow up with some idea of the Alcotts as an ideal family – an idea they get from the way the daughter wrote. Little Women, even if you have never read it or seen the movie, is a kind of signifier.
So is Little House on the Prairie. Bre – a mid-western girl – told me that her mom used to do up her hair in Laura-like braids, and that many folks thought she looked like Melissa Gilbert – the tv version of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Bich Nguyen’s book, Pioneer Girl, is extremely moving, because the power of this national mythology and the history of westward expansion gets reinforced even as it is blown apart. The physical frontier masks an emotional one between parent and child; an abyss that gets bridged by the stories we tell as a culture and as families. In Nguyen’s case, we have Americans whose families have emigrated from Asia. Reaching the west coast, looking out at the Pacific, seems different when the land hidden beyond the horizon is not unexplored territory. It is, or was once, your homeland; the place that haunts you, that shaped your parents; that they left but which will not leave them. It is what makes it so hard to feel like you belong anywhere. The book made me think again about that sense of dislocation that so many people feel, to one degree or another, and where it comes from.
Many scholars, including Nguyen, now know that Laura Ingalls Wilder did not exactly write the Little House on the Prairie books. Her daughter Rose, who was a professional journalist, suggested the arc of the series, outlined each book, and edited them. The overall story, like Louisa May Alcott’s books sixty years earlier, leaves the impression of happy families with strong parents who succeed in this open country; overcome adversity, have adventures, make sacrifices, and stand for something almost mythologically deep about what it means to be American. They are prototype families, comprised of people who fit in to the culture and understand each other. But what the evidence is now showing us is that this vision is not one that gets handed down from parent to child. It really is more of a gift from the daughters to their parents; a rewriting of history that redeems painful or tragic experiences, and it immortalized a culture that rejected the identity of these girls. The fiercely strong women make literary heroes of fathers who struggled until the end. Failure and loss get folded into something a bit more transcendent.
I haven’t decided how I feel about this. It made me think of a time back in the early 1980s, when the idea of church as family was popular, and our minister surprised me by criticizing the notion. Family, she questioned? As in Cain and Abel? Or Cordelia and King Lear? What about Lizzie Borden? Her point was that we, as a community, are much better than many families, and that our religious identity is not based on relationships, it is based on principles. I agree with her, but not easily. Not wholeheartedly.
This community is, in many ways, my identity. I like to say I have been here for four decades, because I was still in my 20s when I was first called, and now I am in my 50s. And now I am reestablishing myself in some way; serving in an official capacity after many years out to take care of children. This is my last sermon here for the year, and I am assessing. Who am I in this community? The relationship between a minister and a congregation is complex. Am I filling in once a month, as an extension of Mark, or am I here on my own, relating directly to you? And how, precisely, do those differ? I am working it out still.
As opening words, we heard from a Canadian man who married a woman from Calcutta, and he learned this fundamental distinction between the East and West. East Asians do not believe in individualism the way North Americans do. People are shaped by each other; are identified by their families. No one expects to feel whole on his or her own, and in fact we become whole by weaving strong connections with our parents, and the myths they live by. But in the west, we are supposed to leave home. We are supposed to become distinctly our selves; triumph over things, fulfill ourselves, and our destiny. So when we talk about church as family, we have to start there – aware that not only do families differ, but our notions of what they are don’t always match up. There are huge cultural gaps, and then there are simply different experiences that lead to different default modes, different values, different tolerances. That is why we are, in fact, joined by choice, by comment assent to certain principles. But I think that is where the idea of church as family is strengthened – in the paradox of being joined while having wildly opposing notions. Cain and Abel were brothers for a reason; they help us wrestle with how to live – to settle, or to wander. King Lear and his three daughters help us explore the nature of suffering and jealousy and the fear of losing power. It isn’t that we are like a family because a family is perfect; it is because that is how we learn; by loving people who are us and not us at the same time.
The third of the Little House books, written in 1935, begins like this:
A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again….Pa said there were too many people in the Big Woods now….Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid. He liked to see the little fawns and their mothers looking at him from the shadowy woods, and the fat, lazy bears eating berries in the wild berry patches.
One of the things that happens in that paragraph, written during a terrible year of drought and in the depths of the Depression, is that loss is transformed into something more complicated. It is covered up by an understanding of how another person feels. “They never saw that little house again” is a painful little sentence; wistful. Laura does not think there are too many people, but she loves someone who does. And so she learns to see the doe and the fawn, and the bear, eating berries in a patch on sunlight. She looks through her father’s eyes.
I think that is what happens in a family, and that is what we mean with the word “home” – our identities get formed as they are mixed up a bit. We become practiced in shifting perspective. The idea of living in harmony with wildness becomes valued, even by someone who might prefer human company. We share in the making of each other. In his essay The House Beautiful, the Unitarian minister William Channing Gannett wrote that it is really light that turns a house into a home, but that true light comes from within and is expressed through our eyes and smiles and little habits that are like caresses. This kind of illumination warms the whole world, by putting us outside ourselves. Radiance is felt, he says, like a “low pervading music that we cannot hear. It is cheer, it is peace, it is trust, it is delight – it is all these things. It is love-light.” This is what causes the glow around the word “home.”
Of course not everyone has happy memories of home, and the word may not conjure anything good at all. There are hurts that never do mend, and some dreams dashed like so much broken pottery. But I think that is part of the allure – that home is such a mixture of pain and longing and idealism. Even if we have never experienced it, we know what we mean and what we are pining for when we want to go home. We want comfort, acceptance, understanding. We want belonging. And we want to just be. We don’t want to have to make a new place less strange and foreign.
I once read an essay about habitats and homes in Scientific American, and the author used the example of homesick children to make his point distinguishing between them. They know the difference between home and not-home even while in their own habitat, because they suffer the difference. If you send a homesick child for a sleepover with friends, a familiar neighborhood will suddenly seem alien. But, he said, “there will be no rejoicing when the child gets back home, because home is as usual. That is the point. Home is always so familiar that you don’t have to notice it. It is everywhere else that takes noticing.”
Grief and devastating loss takes away our ability to be at home. Jennifer and Matt Hubbard, whose daughter Catherine was one of the children murdered in Sandy Hook, talked about how the struggle to write a daughter’s obituary. Jennifer assumed it would happen the other way around – that Catherine would write about her as a mother and grandmother. Thinking about who her daughter was, she typed the notice for the newspaper, and said in lieu of flowers, send donations to the Animal Shelter. It was an impulse, not researched, and they looked up the address on a cell phone. About two weeks later, Matt Hubbard drove out to tell the folks there about their memorial, and called his wife, saying, “There is nothing here. It is just someone’s house.” Jennifer called the number in the phone book, and the woman who answered explained. “We’re animal rescue volunteers. We don’t have a building or any place like that. We just go and help.” But it turned out that in the wake of Catherine’s death, these two women had received about a quarter of a million dollars. They decided to use the money to create a wildlife sanctuary, a place of healing for animals and people; a peaceful place with paths to walk and opportunities to care for injured animals. Jennifer Hubbard suddenly was able to feel at home again, like her daughter was somewhere.
In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott wrote, “Wouldn’t it be fun if all the castles in the air which we make could come true and we could live in them?” Maybe we can, right here. The word “home” implies a sense of permanence and stability that is not really true of our physical lives, but it can be true religiously. This is the church; the nest perpetually being remade and woven with bits from here and there. We are always growing, adapting, incorporating new people and saying goodbye to others. It is the habitat that allows us to be at home in a wider context, to glimpse the world in a new way for just a moment – to notice before our vision shuts once more, and comfort reigns, and it is not new any more. Once, centuries ago, home might have been found solely in the flames of a bonfire that ate away at the edges of the dark, and so we light our candles, and their light carries us someplace else. The sun shines through the windows, but we are really illuminated by one another, and our own capacity for imagination. We listen to stories, think about our parents and our children, our partners, sisters and brothers, our animals and the world that we love; and we are home, in our castles in the air, perched above everything that shifts and crashes and carries us forward.
Closing Words from The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
These are the last words of The Long Winter, one of the books in the Little House series. The chapter is called Christmas in May, and everyone is gathered, learning a new song together.
“And as they sang, the fear and suffering of the long winter seemed to rise like a dark cloud and float away on the music. Spring had come. The sun was shining warm, the winds were soft, and the green grass growing.”
So may it be.