It was my sisters 54th birthday last week. I sent her a card as I have for the past 27 years. My family is big on cards for holidays major, minor and everything in between, so I sent a card.
In family semaphore, cards mean that you are in the good graces, you are accepted, you are acknowledged and part of the tribe. Not getting a card for a holiday or event is the postal silent treatment. Government sanctioned withholding of affection.
I have not received a card from any member of my family in more than four years. My perverse persistence in refusing to play by the rules means that I continue to send birthday and Christmas cards into the silence. Birthday and Christmas cards are the absolute minimum requirement in family card etiquette, similar to attending mass on Christmas & Easter and still calling yourself Catholic.
There was a grudge, as there always is, and I have ended up on the outs with the in-crowd. Grudges are a tradition that many families indulge in like too much pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving – Why not! Have another slice, you won’t regret it till later.
For years I unknowingly provided the bricks to build the great wall of resentment, and my sibs provided the mortar. And while I am sure they complained to each other about me, no one said a word to my face. Another fine tradition. Once the last brick was in place I was informed, in as ugly a way as possible, that I was no longer welcome on the other side.
Everything old is new again.
This is the pattern that played out for my mother when her mother died. The story goes that my grandmother’s family blamed my grandfather for her death and so cut off all contact with my mother and her sisters. My mom was five and lost her mother, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles and all her cousins in one day.
This is the pattern that played out between the four sisters again when their father died, three against one and twenty years to smooth it out enough to all be in the same room at the same time.
And then my eldest brother decided my father was no longer welcome in his house. Or was it the other way around?
When my mother died the family split in half. “Them” what believed that as executor of the will I was stealing the estate (I use that term loosely as my folks were poor), and “Us” what thought we could maybe divide things up that people wanted that were not in the will. Five fewer Christmas cards that year.
Four years later “Us” became me, and post office revenue is in decline.
Going into year five of the silent treatment I understand more about myself and how my striving, organizing, never-say-die attitude probably felt like judgment to my sibs. As much as I would like, I can’t change that. My earliest impulse was to get out of the neighborhood and escape my family as soon as I could. I still don’t know why I thought I could. It never occurred to me that I was stuck, and it never occurred to my bothers and sisters that they weren’t. And so brick by brick we ended up on different sides of the wall.
I miss my older sister. For all intents and purposes she raised me in that way that big families shove the oldest girl into a mother role. She was kind and funny and paid attention to me when there was little attention to go around. She was, and is, a good person. Except for the grudge.
Maybe in another five or ten years enough time will have passed that we can be in the same room at the same time. There is precedent for temporary truce after all.