It’s All Relative is a weeklong exploration of all the different ways of being a family in the year 2019. With this in mind, we asked four writers to answer the question: What is a family? The answers will appear each morning.
I started writing this while at home with my oldest daughter, who is recovering from very minor surgery on what’s called a trigger thumb (a violent term for a gentle bend in her thumb). The procedure did not slow her down in the slightest, but precluded attending school for a week. She was in her Elsa dress; she got sick of it; then she was in her Dory underwear, perched on a cushion, tossing herself backward into the couch over and over while the dregs of Netflix children’s programming droned in the background. I snapped at her to stop it. “When you were a kid did you do this, mama?” she asked me (she meant throwing myself backward onto the couch). “Yes,” I admitted. “I guess I did.”
When I was older than she is now, somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12, my dad gave me the poem “This Be the Verse” by Philip Larkin. Famously, this poem begins, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to but they do.” I remember him handing the green Collected Poems volume to me, open to the relevant page, rather than reading it aloud, but one of the things about families is that everyone in them remembers things according to their own narrative, so I have no idea what’s true. I believe that it was handed over with a pained smile and a comment like “This is very good.” However exactly it was handed over, that poem imprinted on me to the extent that when a college professor wrote “The Family: They Fuck You Up” on the whiteboard and asked if anyone knew the source, I spontaneously recited it.
My firstborn is old enough now that I can hazard guesses about her temperament, and I feel acutely aware of my own and my ancestral deficiencies, both on the macro level and in the more immediate ways. Family seems inescapably to be about inheritances — genetic, financial, ideological, aesthetic. My parents gave me a houseful of books; an exciting, peripatetic childhood; long car rides in which to be bored; a wonderful education. They gave me love and money. The things I would desperately like to do differently are more national, more generational, than specific to them. America seems becalmed by the results of disparate inheritances and their effects: inherited hate, inherited poverty, inherited wealth, inherited trauma. “Man hands on misery to man,” as Philip Larkin says. “It deepens like a coastal shelf.” I want my daughters to be happy; I want them to be good. Already I am starting to see how preventing the misery handoff is easier said than done. Bring on all the hard conversations, I say, only to find myself stumbling.
Then there are my specific things that I don’t want my babies to get. My flaky scalp; my feeling sad; my apocalyptic thinking. My unwieldy appetites. Four drinks when one would do. Five slices of pizza when two would do. Fifteen cigarettes, every one superfluous. “Please chew with your mouth closed,” I say, my mouth full of food. My panicked, shocking laziness. My deep inherited aversion to therapy. Calm in an emergency; gripped by impotent rage when a shoelace snags on a nail. I suspect, watching my older daughter, that she has the latter affliction, but maybe it is just that she is 4 years old. What do I hope she gets from me? I lived in a home full of books, and she does too. She loves to read. She loves to play, she is curious about everybody, she wants to see pictures of mummies and volcanoes. Maybe that is also because she is 4 years old.
My family did not talk at length about feelings, so when my dad gave me the poem I think it was his hedging version of a conversation. It was also a bequest; Philip Larkin’s deep cynicism has been a kind of inheritance. But Philip Larkin had a weakness for beauty and a melancholic strain (like both of my parents, as it happens). “In everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love,” he wrote, in a misanthropic poem about religion called “Faith Healing.” “What will survive of us is love,” he wrote, in a misanthropic poem about marriage called “An Arundel Tomb.” I think the lines stand out from their context. Maybe that is what family has meant for me. You can say some shitty things about it, but the nicest things are ideally the ones that last.
I am trying to finish this at my mother’s house, where she is laid up sick. I am here, not being particularly helpful but providing moral support. She is prone to migraines, which are heritable, but which I seem to have avoided. “I pray the girls don’t get them,” she laments. I feel both the animal contentment of being in my mother’s home, and the free-form anxiety I never fail, at first, to connect with its source, which is being away from my husband and my kids. I look out of mom’s window at a small backyard full of flowers and shrubs and an olive tree, every single one of which she planted and grew and which she tends to every day. There is no evidence that I have a green thumb, but I hope she passed down a bit of what she did with that garden — the impulse to take one small corner of the world, and make it slightly better.
Lydia Kiesling is the author of The Golden State.