It can be pretty hard to recognize if one’s life has been spent occupying the same loric space of routine and bias, but once a person goes into the world for a bit – that’s when you start to evaluate home with set of diversified eyes.
I’m back in London after going home for about a week. As usual the time felt too short, and in the dwindling hours I attempted maximum immersion in all the things family and New England. On Halloween I hopped on a bus to the airport feeling like I had more house projects to complete, more Boston sports matches to yell at, and of course, more family gatherings that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. I’d been home long enough to feel normal in posing questions to my father such as, “Can you call McNamee and ask him to come and pick up his coffin?”
“I don’t understand.” This is the reaction I got from a friend after returning from my trip and attempting to explain how the memorial we had for my departed aunt really wasn’t much of a memorial at all. Sure, the act of gathering formed the cornerstone for my return to Cape Cod, and of course my Aunt Mary’s ashes sat on a box on the kitchen counter while we moved around…but other than that, I struggled to explain the gathering as anything that tradition would classify as burying or honoring the dead.
I paused and suddenly felt a bit weird about the whole thing. The family madness was now recognizable.
“I don’t understand either.”
I might argue that no family has perfected convention, and I don’t pretend that we Hallinans have the market covered on mundane yet bizarre behavior. At our worst, we are fallen saints because we’re pros at making non-moments out of something that should probably be important (like burying a person). At our best, we are fumbling souls who text each other middle finger emojis yet pull each other from the winds of our own personal nor’easter storms. If there’s a mess to be had, we’re all over it and ready to triage.
As an adult, it’s always a bit weird going back. I say this because it’s the only place where the shiny, adult wrapping gets unceremoniously ripped away in the meteorology that is home. The sensation, if you allow yourself to dwell on it, can leave you feeling conflicted and unreconciled between the multiple worlds that form adulthood. The inherent family sickness is present and now articulated, and it can be hard to reconcile this with what you’ve since become.
But then the unstoppable pace of being home continues and invariably you are not allowed to reflect too long on it all because there is so much more enjoyable craziness coming at you like a non-negotiable tide. Like a run-on sentence that you can’t control, but are kind of content in clinging to. Time to get caught up in things again. In the pace of life with your parents, aunts and siblings. You eat more donuts than you ever would anywhere else. It never takes long to feel at home again in the strangeness of hometown normalcy.
I have no interest in taking you through the ways in which we remembered my aunt Mary, or how spent even more time giving bonus attention (middle finger emojis and hearts) to my aunt Julie and the rest of us whom we hardly see. The important point is that the lot of us converged in a rare event of togetherness. We milled about Julie’s house, cooked shrimp, opened Halloween candy and dodged pets while telling a few stories that reminded us of the old neighborhood. Of all the crazy stuff we did as kids and the crazy stuff that we will continue to do.
My aunt Mary, at least her earthly remains, continue to sit in Julie’s house in the green cardboard box that I inappropriately mistook for a Duxbury Creamery container. Apparently, she did not want to be put into the ground. And for me, this is totally fine. Grief and family do not abide by any set of rules, and the beauty of this life is that do what we want with what we’ve got—even if it will never make sense to others or even to ourselves.
While I don’t see my family as often as I would like, I appreciate that I have them around to keep the flame of madness going. I know that sounds a bit crazy—but if I didn’t have them to count on, I fear that I’d suffer from a worse kind of illness. The illness of not belonging anywhere at all, of not having a collective of souls to count on. Ones that will promise to keep you in a box on the counter if that’s what you really want, ones that will take you in when everyone else thinks that the storm is too crazy and hardly worth the venture.