Monday, November 30, 2009

Living in the Body

This weekend I saw my brother and my cousins and my aunts and just about everybody else I'm related to on my mother's side at the wedding of one of my first cousins once removed. We are a big family--both individually and in terms of how many of us there are. I looked around at cousins I hadn't seen for thirteen years--since the last big family wedding--and noticed that some of them looked a lot like their mothers now. The groom looked a lot more like his father than he did the last time I saw him. He married a red-headed woman, which will probably add to the already large number of red-headed cousins.

All the resemblances made me think of Joyce Sutphen's poem "Living in the Body":

Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.

Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly--better to leave it as it is.

Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their piles of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.

But I taught my kids a family game called "Nine Magazines," which we've always told the children is a mind-reading game that only those related to us can play. A number of cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws stopped by to demonstrate their mind-reading ability and further frustrate the kids until they finally caught on, making them part of a tradition that stretches further back than my childhood, back to when my great-aunt had us all running in and out of her house and the relatives for whom we were named and who we would grow up to resemble were still in town, still married, still alive.

I meant to take more pictures, but I kept getting distracted, as usual, so the number of my mental snapshots far exceeds the number of actual ones, which are the ones we'll look at in years to come and marvel at how young and attractive we were then, and who-all was alive then but left their bodies after that occasion. The bodies change, but many of them look the same. There's something reassuring about that kind of continuity, don't you think?

16 comments:

confessionsofdramaturg said...

I totally understand the seeing extended family - and realizing how much things change and yet stay the same. It has been about 10 yrs since I saw some of the extended family I ran into over the holidays - yet it took me no time to get acclimated to them and for them to realize who I was (which is pretty much a carbon copy of my mother..with bigger breasts) :-)

Harriet said...

I love the changing sameness of family too. I also used to love nine magazines. I'd forgotten all about it.

Anonymous said...

Now contemplate how much you might resemble a long-dead relative (say 1700s) -

-lemming

Amanda said...

I love big families and big family gatherings. My husband's family was so scattered and far apart that Jason doesn't even know the names of his cousins, or how many he has. My family, on the other hand, had huge get-togethers on a regular basis, and I grew up with my cousins even though we lived hours apart from each other. I wouldn't give that up for the world. My boys are growing up with my cousins' kids, so we're expanding even more.

Kristen said...

I am always amazed at the resemblances at large family gatherings. There's the cousin I look more like than we do our own siblings. There's the distant relative who from certain angles looks just like my grandfather. And of course, we tend to moan about the terrible genetic presents none of us escaped: the unibrow, the knees like jug handles, etc. ;-)

Jeanne said...

Martine, I saw a cousin who is now a carbon copy of how I remember her very pretty mother--and the mother wasn't there (divorced), so I didn't see how she'll age!

Harriet, Now you can teach A.J. the game... Or when we have our imaginary friends get-together, Walker will be delighted to do it.

Lemming, If only we had a family portrait hall in our manor!

Amanda, My husband was putting names with faces from a family tree the groom's mother copied for us. He's only been married into this family for 27 years!

Kristen, the cousin you look more like than your own siblings reminds me of a scene in the movie Elizabethtown where the hero (played by the extraordinarily pretty Orlando Bloom) is confronted with a very ordinary-looking guy who declares that all the relatives have always said the two of them look alike. He takes a look at Orlando's face and says "yep, just like lookin' in a mirror!"

readersguide said...

This all sounds very familiar, and reminds me that K's family all say of K's brother Neil, "Oh, you mean M [my M] with the beard?" Because they really do look alike -- more alike even than M and K. And even seeing my picture on facebook I can't believe how much I look like my mother, and N like me. It is something -- they drive you crazy (or some of them do), but it still seems essential, somehow, to see them. That's why we fly east every blasted summer . . .

CSchu said...

Glad you are back! Needed a "necromancy" fix.

We had lots of Schumachers for Thanksgiving. Amazing how one of my nieces looks just like her mother. Wonder what they all think looking at me and my daughters. I look more and more like my mom, of course.

Gavin said...

I really enjoyed this. I'm from a family that is dying out, at least the parts I know of, so I am sometimes envious of big family gatherings. I have connected with a great extended community to share holidays with. It is lovely.

I loved Sutphen's poem, will have to find more.

thelass said...

I find a lot of reassurance in being with my family - the "changing sameness", as Harriet put it. Also, hooray for redheads! :P

kittiesx3 said...

I look over the photos I have from my father's side of my family. In the absence of actually seeing both him and my mother together, people assume I look like her. Well I certainly look more like her than I do my step-dad, but really I look like my father. And he's persona non grata plus also dead. So I have this mystery about who I really look like.

My father always said I looked like his mother, but she was born before the turn of the 20th century so pictures of her as a young girl are few and not well done.

Now I do the same with my two sons. They are interesting blends of me and their father but don't resemble each other in the least.

Re the poem, those body changes aren't always so small. I remember when I first realized my mother looked old, not just middle-aged. That was a shock. And now her voice has changed too, there's almost a querulous note to it, one I remember her mother (my Mana)having. Perhaps I will resemble my mother that way.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

One of my cousins, Jim, is just a couple weeks younger than me, and we've always looked more like siblings than anyone in my immediate family. And I look much more like my aunt than I do my mom. My sister, though, resembles people on the other side of my family. I always have fun looking back on older pictures and seeing how much people today look like my relatives from a long time ago.

Jeanne said...

Readersguide, I like the way you put it "it still seems essential to see them."

CSchu, it's scarier to start acting like our mothers than to start looking like them...

Gavin, I'm sometimes envious of big family gatherings, too. My nuclear family and my brother's are kind of peripheral to the rest of this big family of red-headed Roman Catholics.

Lass, I thought of you when I talked about the redheads. My husbands family tree is also full of them, and his red-headed sister married a red-headed man!

Elizabeth, I do that with my kids a lot. People will say they look like me, but I don't see it. They have their father's coloring and his family's build.

Kim, I think seeing who looks like who this visit is part of why seeing relatives seems "essential"!

Anonymous said...

Family can be fun. Family can be crazy. Similarities can be spot on and some are a bit hazy.

mer@lifeat7000feet said...

Hi Jeanne...it's Meredith...one of the non-redheads who looks increasingly like her mother.

I was so glad to see you...and am sorry that I didn't visit more. I got caught up in the hullaballew (pun intended) and didn't spread myself around as much as I wanted to. I did, however, LOVE seeing your son "get" the nine magazine game! Priceless.

Jeanne said...

Meredith, you are the cousin I was referring to in my comment to Martine. I remember your mother as exceedingly pretty, and you look so much like my memory of her.

There was too much hullaballew for any of us with kids to visit as much with other adults as we might have liked. But as Andrew's seemingly short childhood demonstrates, though, this too shall pass.