There’s this movie I love – well, there are lots of movies I love. But this one, Dan In Real Life, is one that I love not for its witty script or memorable acting (as it really has neither) but because of the world it evokes. While the story is about a widower raising three daughters who can’t quite get his life back on track, what I’m drawn to is the family of the film, the clan he’s a part of as he’s trying to navigate his way around an upside-down world.
There’s a scene where the whole family gathers in the living room and plays charades. They perform a talent show for each other. They gather for meals, they play touch football in the yard. Grandparents, parents, grandkids, bustling in and around one big house as a tribe, a group that doesn’t have to be together but wants to be regardless.
Tonight I saw another film with family at its core, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. I didn’t expect to be as moved by it as I was, but the film is just that. It is intimate and honest, and in its quest to find the truth of one story told through the interpretations of many, it maintains sincerity. Polley manages to expose the vulnerabilities of her immediate family without inflicting the damage that can come in exposing old wounds. And she documents it all not only for the audiences in theatres, but more importantly for the generations of her family to come who’ll have such a timeless archive of a story that is theirs, too.
My mom is one of five kids, my dad one of eight. My whole life, I’ve been surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins in numbers I honestly lose track of (even more now that cousins are having their own babies – oi!). I grew up with a big brother, and years later more siblings as my mom remarried and grew our family; now my older brother’s married and I have nephews of my own. As I get older, I look back at family holidays and special occasions and while they might not’ve been as bucolic as the movies, they were our own statement of connection, of our own willingness to stay close even when life and geography might’ve interfered.
In a few weeks, my dad’s side of the family will gather for what’s becoming an annual family weekend in Illinois. We’ll rent cabins for a weekend of swimming, mini-golf, cooking out, hiking, board games and canoeing. I can say with certainty there won’t be a talent show (though there will be drinking which might lead to a goofy stunt or two). We’ll gather from New York and Florida, Colorado and Iowa (and Illinois, too) and we’ll take the time to connect as best we know how.
All of this, and then this article in the New York Times crosses my digital path, an article that so perfectly expresses what is is to have siblings not only then but now, what it is we find (or hope to find) in them, in our entire extended family.
“Siblings are the only relatives, and perhaps the only people you’ll ever know, who are with you through the entire arc of your life,” …“Your parents leave you too soon and your kids and spouse come along late, but your siblings know you when you are in your most inchoate form.”
Of course the “entire arc” … comment assumes that untimely death doesn’t enter the picture, and that acrimony, geography or mundane laziness doesn’t pull brothers and sisters apart, to a point where they’re no longer primary witnesses to one another’s lives, no longer fellow passengers, just onetime housemates with common heritages.
That happens all too easily, and whenever I ponder why it didn’t happen with Mark, Harry, Adelle and me — each of us so different from the others — I’m convinced that family closeness isn’t a happy accident, a fortuitously smooth blend of personalities.
It’s a resolve, a priority made and obeyed. …we made a decision to be together, and it’s the accretion of such decisions across time that has given us so many overlapping memories, which are in turn our glue.
While I love the whole piece, I love this excerpt in particular because not only did I learn two new words (inchoate! accretion!), but because of its honesty about the effort it takes to be that close to these people who, as the article also points out, you might not’ve befriended at work or school or elsewhere otherwise. You are close to them because they are family, but your closeness is not without some attention and it must often withstand the worst life can throw your way.
Just like having grown out of my childhood fantasies of being swept away by a prince on a white horse, I can recognize that the family of Dan in Real Life (The Family Stone is another great example) isn’t exactly the real deal. Perhaps far from it. But a big family, and specifically one who manages to stay close despite (or maybe sometimes because of) years and miles and miscommunications, is one of life’s best blessings.