Also, my mom married a guy who was the brother of a person most of my family didn't like. My aunt married this guy who was a white collar information worker...a mainframe and serial data connection manager. He was college educated. Made some serious cash. Worked for banks and investment houses and oil companies. My family were mostly blue collar, working class, poorly educated...mostly. I have an uncle, my mom's oldest brother, who is an engineer. His claim to fame was the heaters on the Alaska oil pipeline. He helped design and make them. However, he acted just like anyone in the family.
Hard to explain how we acted. Let me see if I can narrow this down without making it completely generic stereotyping. My family were not anti-intellectual, at least when I was a kid we weren't. My maternal grandfather was a pipefitter and plumber, a lifelong southern Democrat and union member who invented solutions to complex problems quite often. My uncles and cousins were electricians and plumbers and telephone linemen who had to do some complex stuff within the codes they worked under. There was no automatic disrespect for a non-journeyman white collar person. What they disagreed with was arrogance, "putting on airs," people who held their noses up at honest working folk. Oh, and they hated gays, Mexicans, and black folks.
That last bit, that's tough to reconcile. See, when my mom married a lawyer who was the brother of this white collar weenie (who did have the "I'm better than everyone" attitude), we (my mom, my brother and myself) started a long, slow process of becoming completely cut off from the extended family. We'd gone from seeing my cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents every week (and sometimes many times a week) to seeing them once every three months, or twice a year, and finally only at Christmas, and even then maybe not.
Now, my stepfather may be a lot of things but he is not fake, he doesn't put on airs. He believes that he is superior to people around him in certain ways, but mostly because he is. He's a fantastic lawyer...one of the best in the country. He makes furniture. He dabbled in clock making. We've built houses, boats (sail and power), cars, instruments. He and my mom did all the repair work and remodeling of their house. They added a 1400 sq foot kennel and workshop to their house ten years ago. The work is not just to code, it is amazing. He was a draftsman, an English teacher, a radio station owner (and DJ in the 50s), a drama teacher, an actor, and he's a hell of a chess player, fisherman, hunter, debater, preacher, and lawman. He is not afraid to tell you how amazing he is, but despite that...since it is honestly earned...my family tolerates him. He's a blowhard with an ego the size of a small building, but he's earned it by being mostly self-made, and he works his ass off even today.
So, years of life in Alamogordo and Las Cruces, all of it in relative isolation from a very large, very entwined family. Some of my cousins went to college, some went into desperate lives, some fought their way from nothing to middle-class, but they all influenced one another...their lives were as entangled as a ball of twine, and the depth of their connections extend to second and third cousins, far off aunts and uncles. They all seem to know one another very, very well. A few burned out from the exposure and now live in seclusion by choice (a choice that is constantly met with "who does he think he is?" sort of noises).
Last week my father was in town for a visit, and we met with one of my cousins who happens to live nearby. She's a former wild child: dropped out of school, married young, had kids young, went through psycho husbands and abusive boyfriends, and now has her boyfriend wrapped tightly around her finger. She's still a hard partier. She drinks like you read about, smokes weed, maybe does some coke. Her kids are all grown and out except for one daughter who refuses to live with her. One son is a Marine, one works for an oil derrick company. She caught us up on the past twenty years in a series of expletives and horror stories mixed with humor and nostalgia and the names from my youth.
Thing is, this isolation that I've had from that family has shielded me from a lot of the bizarre learned prejudice. She went on about how she's raised her son tough so he'd not become a "faggot" because "we have a lot of those in our family, every one of them coddled." She said something about the Mexicans, about how they reminded her of roaches. She used the word "nigger" so completely casually that I didn't catch it the first time...my wife kicked me under the table and gave me this horrified look. Her language was hard to deal with, and I did ask her to quit it, but she's used to not thinking about it. Years of it, casual, no big deal.
Now, on the one hand, I love this woman. She was my role model for cool, for rebellion. She was the source of my first heavy metal album and my first joint. She was one of those wild blonde prototypes for every late 70s teen girl. I admired her ability to back her stepfather down, and she gave us survival tips for the stepfamily that we both belonged to.
On the other hand, I'm embarrassed by her.
In my heart, I know I missed a lot of good being separated from the family. My family doesn't know me much. They do care about me, but I wasn't around for so many important things that I'm just a non-entity. I did learn that they don't like my mom all that much...she got to be "too good" for all of them, which I know is not true. I think that she saw their behaviors, and I think she made a conscious decision.
She told me once when I was eight or nine that the word Mexican was not an epithet, not an insult. She told me that black people are people just like me, but with a history of recent big suffering and big victories just getting what we all have (things like rights and equal protection). She told me that every person should be judged on their merit. Over the years, the way she lived and spoke and worked, she reinforced this teaching. She has her prejudices I'm sure, but she kept them quiet while I lived with her, and she keeps them quiet now. My stepfather is the same way, but far more vocal. He's an obnoxious Palin supporting lifelong Republican, but he has not once said anything racist, and was a partner in the first "white" firm in New Mexico to hire and promote Hispanic lawyers. He's a very strong believer in the person, so long as that person works hard and lives well.
These reminders of my background are interesting. Ten years ago I would have spoken of the animosity and loneliness I had for being separated from my extended family, how I'd lost my heritage and the depth of culture we had (New Orleans via west Texas). Now, I'm rather proud that I didn't inherit the worst of it. Seems to me I picked up all the right lessons: be kind, work hard, help each other, and find your own way.
I still think my cousin is pretty amazing, and she has my respect for surviving her life as well as she has, but those feeling are blunted and dimmed quite a lot by her ignorance, fear, and hatred. I have a feeling that we'll not be seeing her much. Sometimes, sure. Maybe once a year or so. Christmas, maybe.
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