In A Shiver of Light, Laurell K. Hamilton writes about family; what it should be, and, as she notes, so seldom is. I’ve been traveling with my family again, spending time in California in places that we used to call home and no longer are. Ms. Hamilton (I have the strongest urge to call all of my beloved authors by their first names, partially because I feel like I know them, and partially because women are usually referred to by their first names while men are usually called by their last names—but I’ve digressed—again), or Laurell, also writes about the way home should be, but, like family, seldom is.
A Shiver of Light is part of the Meredith Gentry series, and in Merry’s world home and family are very, very complicated concepts and entities, involving relatives who want to kill you and multiple biological fathers of the same children (this is a paranormal world, after all). Luckily, my life isn’t quite so complex, but the underlying concepts are still the same. What is family supposed to be? What does home mean? Somewhere along the way, I basically gave up on the idea of the TV sitcom families, and accepted that I wasn’t going to be living with the Huxtables or even the Dumphries. Maybe more like the Aadams Family.
When I was 14, my family took a trip to Europe. By the beginning of the second week of a two-week trip, I remember having a major meltdown over something terribly important to me at the time, with all the angst a teenager can muster (quite a bit, I assure you) and screaming at my parents, that I wanted to be a real family, not some dysfunctional imitation of the Cosbys.
When I was 14, I doubt I had any idea of what I meant by a “real family,” and it’s not clear that time has sharpened that picture very much. But what I think I meant, and what Laurell Hamilton alludes to, is a feeling of connection, of belonging, of being part of a team whose members all have your back and who will defend and support you no matter what.
Like Meredith Gentry, I didn’t come from a family like that. And while no one was out to kill me, the name of the game in my family of origin was never show any weakness that could be exploited—because it would be. There was no emotional support and no achievement was ever good enough. Such a damaging way to grow up, and in her earlier Meredith Gentry books, Hamilton absolutely nails the devastation that this causes, earning her my undying devotion. No on was interested in knowing who I was, or what I liked or dreamed of. The members of my family of origin had very specific ideas about who I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do. And if I didn’t live up to their ideas of me, then I had failed and I was punished.
I always figure if someone writes a book about experiences I’ve had, especially the painful ones, it’s because I’m not so different from other people out there and we have a virtual community of dysfunction. And while that may not sound so positive, I have always felt that it is. It’s good to know not everyone grew up with the Brady Bunch or the Cleavers (as in “Leave it to…”).
I always dreamed of family gatherings like those of the Kennedys (and see how well that family turned out). Or like the wealthy family in The Wedding Crashers. In my family, it was different; my mother or my aunts would cook for three days at the holidays, we’d scarf it all down in ten minutes, and then my cousins or my brother would start telling puerile, vulgar jokes. Everyone would get hammered, and often someone would end up in tears. Sounds fun, huh? It wasn't.
If it was just my parents and my brother, we’d all sit around staring at each other with nothing to say and then bolting from the table as soon as possible.
So, if all of this tells us what home and family should not be, how does Merry help us understand what family should be? To begin with, of course, it’s necessary for at least most of us to see past the polyamorous lifestyle that all of Laurell Hamilton’s heroines seem to embrace. I cannot imagine having to negotiate sex and parenting with more than one partner. It’s hard enough to agree with one guy about when, where, how often, and how to be intimate; can you imagine that conversation among five or six? And then imagine what a smart and resourceful child could do in terms of playing one parent against the other, and the next, and the next. I would have had an absolute field day with that, as a teen, that's for sure.
But if we look beyond that, what Merry shows us are relationships filled with love, respect, deep acceptance of differences and deformities, and forgiveness of transgressions. In fact, it’s an excellent model of what family should involve—patience, tolerance, gracious compromise, happiness for others, and a willingness to give everyone his or her time in the spotlight. Definitely something for everyone to aspire to and to emulate.
And perhaps it takes the kind of dysfunctional background that I and Merry grew up with to appreciate the gift of a family that embodies the loving, positive aspects of home and family that Merry (and I) are trying to create, given the choice and the willingness. Cue the rose petals dropping from the sky now.