all in the family

I Half-Expected My Memoir to Tear My Family Apart

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos courtesy the author.

All in the Family is a series on kith and kin during a year like no other.

My sister and I were sitting in the parking lot of a grocery store in Berkeley, dreading the task ahead. Once again, our mother had called to ask what we were making for Thanksgiving. Once again, our brother Junior wouldn’t be at the table. “I want a new family,” I said to my sister, staring out into a blur of busy shoppers.

She told me it was an awful thing to say. I tried to explain that I didn’t want to replace anyone, I just wanted a family of my own, and she rolled her eyes, understandably. We were both in our 20s and far too single to say such a thing. Still, the declaration was a revelation to me, the first time I’d put a bone-sad feeling into words.

I didn’t yet know the shape of this family. I wanted peace and ease. I wanted someone, but who? What I craved was so far away from any feeling I’d ever felt, my imagination couldn’t conjure even the sketch of such a person. All I knew was I wanted to love these ghosts of people so badly.

This longing didn’t go away, but instead evolved over the years and took the form of a memoir about my family and the source of that longing. Home for the holidays last year, I handed my parents a draft, finally brave enough to share it with them. They were so proud to see their daughter’s name on a book. Maybe a bit naïvely, I tucked myself into my childhood bed and fell asleep feeling free.

In the morning, my dad stomped around the kitchen, angrily making me coffee. My mother sat on the couch with wet eyes. Neither of them spoke and I realized they’d spent the night reading. My dad practically threw the coffee at me. “Did you have to show my worst qualities? Is that how you see your dad?” I tried to tell them my book isn’t about them, that sharing our lives is an act of love and not hate, but they could not hear me. “You just wanted to make me look like a bad mother,” my mom cried from the couch.

My memoir is about my family, the tragedy of losing my brother to gun violence, and the collective grief felt by my family and by the Black community. It paints a vivid picture of the chaotic yet loving home I grew up in, and I knew it would leave my family feeling exposed. I half-expected my parents to disown me, my siblings to hang their heads in shame. The words I uttered ten years earlier in the parking lot in Berkeley, the words I’d say to myself like a prayer any time I felt that familiar melancholy creeping in, were close to the surface now: I want a new family.

The last days of my holiday visit felt long. Even through her disappointment in me and my book, my mother managed to find moments to whisper in my ear when we were alone and ask me why I still wasn’t pregnant. “I just don’t know what you’re waiting for,” she said with big, urgent eyes. “It doesn’t matter if you’re married or not,” she said, almost begging, not knowing I’d been unsuccessfully trying and had two miscarriages.

My longing for a family had taken a distinct shape. Suddenly, what I wanted was a baby.

“It’s not easy for everyone,” I said to my mother, who’d had six children. Part of my deep longing for family, I thought, was this dynamic with my mother. I wanted her to sense my needs without having to spell it out, to take care of me without having to ask, but that was not my mother. I tucked it away and looked forward to more tangible things: I was about to become an author.

I flew back to New York in January feeling strong yet alone. I need a new family, I thought, not knowing that would be the last time I’d see my family face-to-face for a year or more, that our world was about to quarantine. I tried to hold close what a healer once told me: “You have to sacrifice your small family in order to gain an even bigger family.” But beneath my confidence, I was terrified. Had I hurt my family beyond repair? Would I not only end up with no new family, but no family at all?

A few months later, my partner proposed to me in our Brooklyn living room — and I was pregnant. Our parents were the first ones we called to announce our engagement. They were so happy for us. “Time to get to work on some other things,” both sets of parents said with winks and thinly veiled baby euphemisms. We kept our fragile secret to ourselves, but with much to celebrate, we let ourselves feel excited. But only a few days later, the cruel return of blood.

Maybe it was that my book was coming out soon, maybe I was just exhausted from hiding my feelings, but after the engagement and our third loss, I decided to tell my mother the truth: that the pain of infertility clouds every accomplishment, how it was hard to be excited about my book, how I dreaded speaking to her because she was ashamed of my book and because I knew she’d ask why I wasn’t pregnant. “I didn’t know,” she said. “I will pray for you.” And that was it. She stopped mentioning it.

The change between us happened so naturally I didn’t notice at first. Gradually, I began to look forward to my mother’s calls. When I got off the phone, I felt energized, hopeful. When I checked the mail, there were letters from her, notes saying how much she loves me. The refrigerator became full of my mother’s handwriting and her hand-drawn hearts around the words “I” “Love” “You” on the left side of each card. I pictured her disciplined, praying hard every week in the Quaker meeting in Berkeley next to my dad. As he fumed over my book, she helped him through it.

While the pandemic shut society down, my mother transformed herself into the mother I needed. Suddenly, I had a new mom.

This was not the only familial relationship reshaped by this year. The shift in my siblings happened gradually, too. Before, my siblings and I never communicated regularly, but quarantine marked the end of our busy lives, the end of excuses for never calling. We were stripped down to our most essential selves, some days depressed from isolation, other days overcome with gratitude for our health. These circumstances created a visceral need to connect, and soon their texts started to come in with frequency. We shared pieces of our lives, exchanging photos. Our group chat became alive with follow-up questions and insights, support, encouragement, even jokes. Someone suggested we include our parents and set up a recurring Sunday Zoom. At first it felt awkward; this is not who we are. But week after week, one by one, we shared our lives with each other, as if our togetherness were natural.

My parents were at my virtual book launch in July, smiling. When they finally received their copies, they touted them around town, imploring everyone they encountered to buy it. My siblings read my book in their own private book club/support group. Strangers — my readers, a kind of new family — reached out with beautiful messages telling of healing and gratitude. My mother’s letters kept coming and from them I learned she is proud of me. How badly I’d wanted to be a mother, not knowing I’d so deeply needed to be mothered. How badly I wanted a new family, not knowing the family I already had possessed the capacity to change.

Melissa Valentine is the author of The Names of All the Flowers.

My Memoir Almost Tore My Family Apart