Monday, April 14, 2008

Family Function

Many years ago, when I was eight or nine or thereabouts, I had a nightmare. I was in a tent in the middle of the Sahara, alone and crying. I did not cry from hunger or thirst. Nor was I afraid for my life. Rather, I sobbed because I had been abandoned far out in the desert and was completely alone.

Now, it goes without saying that my family would never have left me out in the desert, as much as that may have seemed an attractive option from time to time. That being said, it is the case that we are unusually independent of one another, to the extent that when I was debating whether to make aliyah, the distance from my family was simply not a factor in the decision-making equation. Nor was distance was the reason for my family’s lack of enthusiasm about the move. Had I chosen to move to a less embattled but far more distant zone like Australia, no one would have had a problem. (If anything, my sister would have very pleased, as Australia is a place she likes to visit and Israel is not.) This is not because we do not love each other. We do. We just have an extreme laissez faire attitude toward familial love. We love each other better without too many strings and at a physical and emotional distance. We do not talk on the phone all the time, we do not require up-to-the-minute updates on each others’ lives and we often have only the foggiest of ideas of what the other members of the family are doing or in what state or country they are doing it.

I state this as a descriptive fact, and not as a complaint. This is who we are. I do not know how I would manage if we were any other way. I am independent and I like to be independent and to do and to come and to go as I please. I take great pride in what I have accomplished and I take particular pride in the fact that I have done most of it alone. My family is dysfunctional? Perhaps…but then, what other type of family would I suit?

From time to time, however, the isolation I felt as in that long-ago dream engulfs me again and I find myself aching for a sense of connection and envying those who have it. My friend Kayla receives a weekly call from home…and I find myself asking why my parents do not call me; why I always have to call them. Gayle's brother came for a week to visit her…and I know that the chances that my siblings will visit me are slim. On these days, my glorious independence feels like a burden, a punishment, and a curse, and the inner drive to marry just so that I will be fully connected to someone, anyone, nearly overwhelms me. But then there are other days where I find myself wondering if I am wired for marriage at all. How can I give up my freedom, after years of living with no limitations at all?


I know that this is the point where I am supposed to tell you how this is how it used to be, but that all of this changed with the bombing. You want to read about how my family and I were shocked into learning the errors of our ways and became warm, loving and close. You want me to tell you how my siblings and I now talk on the phone on a weekly basis, and share the most minute details of our lives and how my sister is now my best friend.

Yeah, well....sorry. Learn to live with disappointment.

I can tell you that there have been changes, and the changes have been good. My father came to be with me when I was injured. For the first time in my adult life, he saw me on my turf, with my friends. He saw me as an adult, and not the hysterical, somewhat loopy young woman I had been the last time we had lived under one roof. Before I left the States, I used to dread going home to visit because, although I loved and respected him, we just had nothing to say to each other. And then, all of a sudden, we were forced to spend a week together. It was grand. It was the nicest time I had had with him in years. My relationship with my siblings also underwent a revitalization made up of the realization of how easily our relationships could have been ended combined with more time spent speaking to each other than any of us had spent in years.

So there is no question that the bombing has made a positive impact. And yet I know that the end result is likely to disappoint. Yes, my family is closer, but we are closer in our own, distant, hands- off way. There was an initial surge in communication for the first few months after I was injured. That died down. At this point, I communicate via phone or email with the various family members about once every one to two months. I suppose you could say that we still do not speak much, but thanks to the bombing, we like each other a lot more when we do speak.

So it is better, but it is not ideal—or perhaps it is? Many times when isolation comes, I tell myself that not only am I wishing for something that will simply never be mine; I am wishing for something I might not want to be mine. If I could speak to that child in the desert today, I would ask her if she were crying for something she really needs, or for something she thinks that everyone else has. Why do my parents, my siblings and I not talk to each other every day? Because we do not need to. In fact, that much communication would probably drive us crazy. We love each other, but we love each other for who and what we are: independent, self-sufficient, and somewhat distant—the type of family who will be there if you really, truly, desperately need them, and will not get in the way the rest of the time.

But if that child could speak to me, she would probably ask why it is so important to me that I need nothing? Why is it so important to me to feel I have gotten a happy ending? Why is it so important to me to be able to say: 'this is how we have ended up, and therefore this must be best, this must be fine'? Why is it so wrong to cry and say, 'This is bad. I want something else. I want something that I do not have'?

To her I can only answer: “I cannot turn back the clock”. I am not trying to force out a happy ending. Rather I am acknowledging that this is the ending. We are both the creators and the creations of our families. After years of building and being built by a family that seems uniquely designed to pop out separate, self-sufficient units, how can I be anything less than separate and self-sufficient? Does that make me or us dysfunctional? Perhaps, or perhaps my family is crafted to function for us and us alone, and I have been crafted to function within it.

Who would I be if I weren’t me? Who else can I be but me?


Jack said...


Two comments. I love these introspective pieces. I used to do a lot of them. But as my anonymity has slowly been chipped away the freedom I felt to speak has eroded.

I respect and appreciate that you do it without the "safety net" of anonymity that I rely upon.

The one thing that I have figured out about life is that the only key to happiness is the happiness we find within ourselves.

It is different for everyone. Not very profound, but it is a simple truth that I believe in.

Ahuva said...

You're most likely going to be mad at me for saying this, but I'll say it anyway.

"Rather I am acknowledging that this is the ending."

No, it's not. You don't know what the ending will be and neither do I. Your sister could have a life-changing experience and suddenly feel the need to be closer to you. You, of all people, know that life is not predictable.

It's only the end when you decide that this is it and even then, after you have given up, something might change.

Baila said...


Your family dynamics seem to be similar to mine. I am very independant of my immediate family as well. In fact, I am surprised that I miss my parents as much as I do...the difference for me is that I have felt vaguely guilty about this, as if I were somehow the cause of it.

I'm not sure that I really agree with Ahuva that you can change this. Sometimes things are what they are. My family will never be the touchy-feely-talk-on-the-phone-daily family. But like you, I know that they are for me as I am for them.

Sometimes that has to be enough.

TalTalK said...


I'm happy that, in your own way, the bombing brought your family closer together, but I think you're right: Only in soap operas (rather, telenovelas since we are in Israel), do families who were once apart become close. It's a matter of personality and upbringing. I'm not saying it's a bad way to live - it's just not the way it is in Israel.

Having grown up both in Israel and in the US (to Israeli parents), I can say that the family dynamics in both countries are very different. I have a theory, too. In the US, when you turn 18, you can't wait to go off to college and leave home. The US is so enormous that oftentimes, after you graduate, you only really see your family on major holidays and family events (i.e. weddings). On the other hand, when an Israeli turns 18, s/he goes off to the army, and after being battered in basic training, all you dream about is mommy, daddy, and schnitzel with puree. So what happens is that by 20 or 21, your parents clearly see you as somewhat of an adult (due to the army thing), and you appreciate them because they don't make you wake up at 5 am, shower with 20 of your closest friends, and eat in a mess hall.

Also, Israel is so small, that not being able to afford to visit (as an excuse) just doesn't happen. Just yesterday I had this talk with another American Israeli. He said when he was in college, he and his brother dreaded going to his parents for the weekend. And if they went, they would usually drive back. In Israel you have full grown adults with families going to their families for the weekend - which is almost completely unheard of.

So while you're looking for Mr. Right, make sure he has the Israeli mentality, and you'll see your own formed family will be different than the one in the States. :-)

Mia said...

I've heard it said that in the US your friends are your family and in Israel your family are your friends. What is fine in the US can be very difficult in Israel, especially since a major holiday is coming up.
Good thing you live in Tel Aviv. If there is anywhere to be alone and independent in Israel it is there.

And why us this the ending? What would happen if you would call your family, say, once a week? Would they hang up on you?

But I am sensing it's not your childhood family you are looking for closeness with. I think you should get yourself a very Israeli friend and let their family smother you for a while. You should try this before you make any lifelong commitments and be sure to have some strong headache reliever with you, when you do.

Savtadotty said...

As a parent who put that distance between herself and her adult children, I can fully appreciate how your family functions. The push-and-pull between independence, the priority value in America internalized by those of us who were raised there, and the priority value of interdependence that I discovered in Israel, is just different: not wrong, not right, bnot good, not bad.

As for "the ending," you don't get to write it, just as ahuva said.

TalTalK said...

Oy - Sorry I wrote so much!!!

kinzi said...

Gila, yup, that was my family too! I spent many years and tears longing for what they couldn't give me. When my parents both died within five weeks of the other, my two brothers and I spent the best time we ever had together. For we had all flown the coup to escape the alcoholism, and ended on three continents as an atheist, an agnostic and a Christian. I was so sad when that closeness faded away again.

What would I say to you, after all you've been through, especially with no husband or kids to distract you from the ache, the gnawing, the longing? I'm not sure I have any ideas better than what you have already expressed. I just want to affirm your significance, your uniqueness, your life.

There was a reason God spared your life (golly, is it ok for me to say that?? I don't mean it glibly, like some pat phrase:D). Are you pursuing that angle? Maybe I should read more in your archives before I ask something that has already been answered.

(hey, and thanks for your grace with my readers)

Batya said...

Fantastic post. So many points.
We made aliyah in 1970 when there were hardly any phones here. I used to send an aerograme to my parents every week. I did that for about 20 years, and then, I just couldn't any more.

They used to call us on rare occassions; we never called. Now I call most of the time, not often.

Two of my kids are in the states. I call them once a week. They rarely call. Sometimes an email.

My sister and I are like strangers. I hardly know her kids and my kids barely know their cousins. Different ages and lives.

kleine Maus said...

How did you know it to be the Sahara and not the Gobi- or Simpson desert, I hardly can imagine there to be roadsigns to Dakar or Zanzibear.

If you are in need of some extra or more frequent attention of your relatives, you might consider to become a member of a bomb squad.

Ari said...

Very smart not to analyze this dynamic too much. As you imply, it is what is. IMHO, there's nothing terribly wrong with friends functioning as family. My friends know more about me than my family. It sounds as if you have good social relationships to compensate.

As for a significant other -- well, don't be so sure that he will ever know as much about you as some of your friends do.

Anonymous said...

Eh, am I supposed to read something into this? What's your point? ;)

Gila said...

Jack-I debated before posting this, but in the end my exhibitionist side won out.

Ahuva-I look at my relationships with my family in the same way it is advised to look at a relationships in general--accept the person for who she or he is, and do not expect to change him. Sure, it could change tomorrow. And you could wake up tomorrow with the flu. But I bet you are still going to set your alarm clock and presume you are going to work.

Baila--I have a bit of the guilt in respect to my niece and nephew. Every once in a while I will think--you know, maybe you should live closer. But the truth is that I really love living in Israel, and am not prepared to sacrifice so much for them.

Taltalk--that is kind of my "fantasy" a nice Israeli guy with a big, warm family. Though I suspect I might be ready to kill them within a year. Or less. This might well be something I would enjoy more in theory than in practice.

Mia--have actually been giving some thought to the whole Tel Aviv dynamic recently....

SavtaDotty--hi! Glad you are back! When do you put the soup back on? :) THAT is how you ended up a renegade Christian in Jordan. ;P The funny thing is that, right now, my siblings and I are on three different continents. Religiously we are all the same (Jewish) but we are probably varying levels on the "obscene levels of independence" scale.

Batya--At least now international calls are cheap.... Except if you are me and always make the calls from your cellphone instead of a land line....

Maus--Duuuuuhhhh...because I am smart! :) (And yes, I am aware that you hate the smileys)

Ari--I would agree but have watched far too many movies and KNOW you must be making that up! :)

Mer--Point=next time I visit the States, I get to meet the chef, right? You know, to build warm fuzzy family feelings. I will bring her a present and everything. Hmmmm...perhaps a sweater might be useful... Oh, that's right. She will be able to turn up the heat as high as she wants now!

(Hope you are over the jet lag....)

sari(ta) said...

I've never posted before, but I thought you might enjoy this quote:

"The family that you're born into is only a starting point. They feed you and clothe you until you're ready to go out into the world- and find your tribe."

I feel cheesey quoting Grey's Anatomy, but I think this is the way a lot of people feel in America- friends become family because we leave our first homes.