Unseen inheritance

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My grandmother, Loretta, with one of her beloved dogs.

I had always expected that once I got pregnant that my adoration of dogs would wane. But here I am, lumbering well into my third trimester, and I continue to find dogs far more interesting than children. They catch my eye on the street far more than babies do. Perhaps I will love dogs less once I have a child of my own. I will, at least, expect to be less focused on them. But I think they will always matter to me. My grandmother, Loretta, shown above, never lost her lifelong love of dogs. We used to joke that she knew more about the family’s dogs than she did about her own grandchildren. And yet we did not resent her for it; it was part of her everlasting charm. She craved the company of dogs, perhaps because they shared her boundless enthusiasm for life.

Whenever I’m away from home, I look for dogs everywhere. They make me feel less homesick; they instantly brighten my mood. While in Charleston, Guion knew I’d want to linger by a dog park and so he let me ogle like a creep by the fence, just to watch the pups play for a bit. I recently returned from SXSW in Austin, where there was no shortage of street dogs to admire. A dog-loving colleague and I would take pains to point dogs out to each other. And then, when I come home to Pyrrha, I am Lazarus, fresh from the tomb: You never saw such rejoicing! Such disbelief! Such yips of ecstasy!

How can you not harbor a lifelong obsession with such a creature? A silent, joyful, juvenile wolf who sleeps in your home and gives you daily offerings of unending love?

. . .

In thinking about our unknown child, our fast-approaching firstborn, I wonder about the unseen inheritances that he or she will receive. I am particularly interested in the personality traits that skip a generation or two. Will she have her great-grandmother’s infectious laugh (and fixation on canines)? Will he have his great-grandfather’s gift of playing music by ear?

“Unseen” is the word that comes to me, although it is perhaps not quite right. “Unknown” or “unanticipated” are probably closer to what I mean. But I like the idea of being blindsided by a familial similarity. You look at your kid one day, when she is six years old, and you realize she has her grandmother’s eyebrows and her great-grandfather’s genteel manner of storytelling.

This interests me. I am not sure how to say more about it than that.

. . .

“The digital clutter of our lives doesn’t merely make us anxious, interrupting our train of thought and blocking us from longer periods of silence and the deeper thinking that can go with it. Our digital clutter redesigns our world around the temporary. Constant interruptions turn us into amnesiacs who are required to respond, reply, and react from moment to moment. This is why we have so little memory of what happened last week, let alone what happened last year or twenty years ago. We are constantly threatened with interruption, so we experience each moment as something that could easily be discounted, could easily be erased or subsumed by some more important message. Our minds, in other words, are filled with the clutter of what comes next: messages and tweets and texts yet to be received. We live in a world of past and future clutter. We are boxed in. There is no space for where we are right now.”

— Heather Havrilesky, “Stuffed,” from her new book, What If This Were Enough?

. . .

Learning more about birth continues to cement my feminist leanings. I continue to trust in the incredible power and strength and wisdom of women. The main things I have gleaned thus far are that women should labor in the place they feel safest, and women should guide other women through labor and birth, as they have done for millennia. I’m not sure this is a realm where men get to have much say (and, in this way, it feels right to treat birth as holy, in the “set apart” sense of the definition). We’ll see how it goes. I am trying not to have any expectations, because I know that none of it can be organized or planned. It will be a great exercise in surrender, an act that I do not typically welcome.

Women in my family have taught me

Advice from the women in my family.

My mother

Christmas 2015Buy nice hand soap. Make your home a warm and welcoming place for guests. Be a kickass business owner who isn’t afraid to negotiate, with everyone, for everything. Never settle for uncomfortable jeans, even if they’re on sale. Take care of your nails (stop painting them). Sit down and eat a good meal, mostly derived from the earth, and don’t worry so much about hard-core exercise. Tend a garden. Take walks.

My grandmother Lucy

Ma-Maw getting some bun cuddles.Take care of your face. Invest in expensive face creams. Be proud of your family; tell them how proud of them you are whenever you see them. Create and cherish family traditions. Find your signature scent and do not deviate. Write and send cards to people on every conceivable occasion.* (*At Ma-Maw’s funeral, a woman came up to me and told me that Ma-Maw sent her dog a birthday card.)

My grandmother Loretta

GranBe direct with people about what you want; don’t hedge. Laugh a lot: loudly and daily. Tell stories and crack jokes in every social interaction. Making fun of people is a nice way to show that you care. Consider the needs of dogs, first and foremost. Take risks and do not give any weight to cultural opinions. Show off your legs.

My sister Kelsey

Easter 2016Be confident about yourself and your appearance. Marie Kondo your entire home; if you bring home one new thing, throw out one old thing. Reserve time for kissing and cuddling. Take care of everyone around you; be uncannily prescient about predicting others’ needs. Prioritize your own needs on a long road trip (e.g., chicken nuggets and a milkshake).

My sister Grace

It's so hard having hot sisters #farsonsSee the whole damn world. Do what you want with your life and ignore conventions. Hoard creative material and ideas and make no apologies for the rats’ nest that is your childhood room/closet. Dress like you just went on a trip to Japan and found out that your life calling is to be a potter (who also owns a motorcycle and two pit bulls). You can never have too many notebooks.

My great aunt Lib

Found photo: Aunt LibRead everything and write long letters full of great sentences. Tell stories in every conversation. Invent your own catchphrases and use them liberally. Preserve an irreverent sense of humor in all circumstances. Be a lady who gets things done and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way.

Clan identity

(I was going to write this livid post about how all conservative religion wants to do is control women’s bodies, but, eh, been there, done that, so you’re getting this bit instead.)

Family weekend

Someone (a novelist, I think) somewhere said something to the effect of: A family is just a group of people who think they’re better than everyone else.

I think this is what people mean when they talk about “blood ties.” Love them or hate them, your family is going to inspire these super-intense reactions from you, because you’re part of their clan, for better or worse. And part of being a clan is the belief in your inherent superiority to every other clan.

Arrogant and self-serving as this is, I like this part of being a family. Of reveling in each other’s company and in your relatedness. Of feeling surges of pity for everyone else because they don’t get to be part of your clan. (This is why clubs and memberships are so appealing to us on the whole; we all want to belong to something that excludes other people, by definition.) It’s easy for me to feel this way, frankly, because I have this really fabulous, funny, and talented family.

I also feel this way about this band of friends I had during my freshman year at college. We operated like a mini-family (again, for better or worse). We ate daily meals together. We got all up in each other’s emotional business. We exchanged gifts and aphorisms. We created observable traditions. We were proud of each other and we bragged about each other’s accomplishments and talents, like cheerful siblings. We fought and forgave. And we eventually disbanded, but I still feel this surge of intense feeling when I remember them or see them, even from afar. It was a fraught family unit, but we loved each other, in our own clumsy ways.

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Remnants of my freshman-year family.

Of course, the intense pleasant feelings for one’s family are always paired with intense unpleasant feelings too. It’s part of the bargain of clan identity. You will love and hate your family more than you will love or hate almost anyone else.

These are not especially profound or novel thoughts, but they’ve been taking residence in my brain. My family is traveling to the Midwest for my grandmother’s memorial service, and I am mulling over all of those little sayings (“these are the ties that bind,” whatever that literally means) about family and family identity. But on the whole, I am pleased to be a member of my clan and to bear all of the psychological luggage that comes with it. There are very lovably complex humans in our family unit, and I delight in being with them.

Best wishes for a pleasant Memorial Day weekend to those in the US and to all those who will be plunged into clan identity gambits.

Lately

I think about Gran often. Her great smile greets me every morning from the front of the fridge; it’s the card my Aunt Shel made for her to send out over the holidays. (Her full biography, which I helped compose with Aunt Shelly, is available on the funeral home website, along with this wonderful photo gallery of her life.) I was at the dentist yesterday and she came to mind, notably how vigilant she was about caring for her teeth.

The dental hygienist and I also spent the majority of my appointment talking about death. I’m not sure how we got there, but it struck me that mortality is such an interesting topic to discuss with a near stranger. It started with her telling me that Robin Williams’s children were being jerks about what they wanted from his estate. And then she said that her own children, when her second husband died, were similarly grabby. (“My husband offered his eldest son that beautiful Steinway piano for many years, and his son always rejected it. But then as soon as my husband died, guess what they were all fighting over? Yep. That old piano.”) She concluded by saying that it was wise to go ahead and give your kids the stuff they wanted of yours, instead of letting them duke it out after your death. And that life is short. And we never know when we’re about to go.

What could I leave you? The dogs. You could take them; Pyrrha would not want to live alone with Guion after my passing. He may want to keep Eden, though, because she loves him. You can have my carefully sorted wardrobe and my books. I do not have many possessions that anyone would want to tussle over. Give it all away. I do not take much stock in harboring or hoarding sentimental objects.

I am reading a lot again. Particularly, I’d like to fill some gaps in my knowledge of the Western canon. But I’m never really in the mood to revisit Chaucer or Milton. I also have no desire to slog through Don Quixote. And I’d rather watch a hundred nights of NFL than read Dickens again. (I’ve read enough Dickens! Five novels should be enough! Don’t tell me I have to read Bleak House too!) Does this make me a bad reader? Possibly. But I also feel unapologetic about my taste. I think that’s the mark of pretension. You stop caring about “ought” when it comes to art and culture. And this makes you a less lovable person, but I think it’s somewhat inevitable, when you start to develop a specialty in any subject. People love you less. But you don’t care, because you’re right. And that brings you (me, I’m really talking about me) comfort.

Another recent obsession: learning French and refreshing my knowledge of Japanese. I hope to sign up for an actual beginner’s French class next semester, but in the meantime, I’m teaching myself through the Duolingo app, which is really quite wonderful/addictive.

Learning French has been SO refreshing! After spending about 10 years intermittently studying Japanese, I honestly had no idea that foreign languages can be so easy. I had never tried a romance language before. (As much as I love Japanese, what a grave mistake! If I had invested as much time in French as I have in Japanese, I’d be fluent. No doubt. I could read Proust in the original. Surely. Instead, I know the slimmest margin of Japanese, my abilities having diminished steadily each successive year after college graduation.) But French! What a lark! What a breeze! I can actually read the words, right off the bat, without having to learn three different alphabets! What a marvelous language.

Mastering French pronunciation is going to be grim, however. My tongue is entirely molded by the neat, clipped Japanese sounds that I picked up when I was 11. Speaking French feels impossible. Those sexy French consonants and lusty vowels, they seem utterly beyond powers of my mouth. Que pouvez-vous faire?

Loretta

My Gran, my Dad’s mom, passed away this morning.

*

Midwest trip 2012
With her five children.

Gran was constantly laughing. Even after her stroke a year ago robbed her of speech, she kept laughing. It was the kind of bright, infectious laugh that lit up a room, that made everyone want to remain in close proximity to her.

*

She loved NASCAR, motorcycles, dobermans, dogs of all kinds (more than people, for the most part), dental hygiene, painting, the beach, her convertible, and interior design, among other things.

*

I liked to call her the “patron saint of painting.” She painted almost every surface in her beloved cottage in Grand Rapids (even once attempting to paint the carpet).

The last conversation we had, just about a week before her stroke, we had just moved into our home and she called me to check in. We talked about her coming to visit us in the spring, as she had never been to Charlottesville before. She asked me what we had been working on, and I told her that we’d painted the fireplace and the surrounding ceramic tile white. “What kind of paint did you use for the tile?” I told her that we used an oil-based paint. “Oh, honey,” she said, “I love you, but that was the wrong thing.” She laughed for a bit. “I painted tile in my kitchen with that kind of paint, and it started chipping a week later.”

Sure enough, a week later, after we learned about her devastating stroke, the paint started to chip in front of the fireplace, revealing the old red tile underneath.

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Dad and me with Gran, February 2014.

*

It is hard to convey in words how endlessly FUN she was. I don’t think anyone has had a grandmother as hilarious. Spending time with her was always like hanging out with this really cool woman who happened to be related to you, and so you were always marveling: How did she get to be this cool?

She was independent, forthright, and sassy. She let you know what she wanted and when she wanted it.

Once, she drove Guion and I back to Ohio, and she let us know as soon as we got in her car: “Listen, I love you two, but we can’t talk much on the drive, because the race is on.” NASCAR or maybe the Indy 500, I don’t remember, but she loved her racing. She switched on the radio and that’s what we listened to until it was over. And then we talked about her family, how much she fought with her sister and her judgmental Dutch Reformed family, and about Michigan life.

The tooth brusher
Brushing her teeth, right after dinner. The most fastidious woman you’ve ever met, when it came to dental hygiene.

*

Southern Living
Family vacation in the Outer Banks.

When this photo above was taken, we were on a family holiday in the Outer Banks. She adored the ocean and couldn’t get enough of it. Kelsey and I were sitting out on the deck with her, and she was flipping through some magazines. Alex had made the three of us (very) salty margaritas, and we were laughing and talking while we drank them and looked out at the ocean. Kelsey and I decided to paint our toenails, and she watched us and chatted.

Later, after we got inside, Kelsey and I looked at our nails, and they looked terrible: all clumpy and gross. We exclaimed that they turned out horribly, and Gran looked at us and said, very matter-of-factly, “Oh, yes, you’re not supposed to paint your nails in the sun. The hot sun will ruin them as they dry.” She started laughing. We demanded to know why she hadn’t stopped us from painting them. And she said, with a face full of mischief, “I just wanted to see what would happen.”

*

Lucy and Loretta
My grandmothers: Lucy and Loretta.

Two nights ago, I had a dream about Gran and my mom’s mom (Lucy, aka Ma-Maw). Lucy and Loretta have been dear friends ever since they were brought together by my parents’ marriage. As you can see from the photo above, they had a great deal of fondness for each other.

In my dream, Lucy and Loretta got a townhouse together in a retirement community. It was the present day, but Gran could speak and move around on her own, and somehow, them moving in together made them younger. They were having the best time as roommates, and they just wanted to party all the time. We kept asking to come visit, and they kept saying, Oh, we’re too busy, not this week, maybe next. But we all knew they were just partying hard and wanted to be independent ladies.

The dream made me laugh a little when I woke up, but when I recounted it to Guion, I couldn’t retell it without crying.

*

Gran, love you forever and always. What a gift it was, to know you.

Gran, we miss you so much already. The coolest and most cheerfully sassy woman I know away this morning.

Visiting Gran in Ohio

We were all so unprepared for the bitterness of Ohio in mid-February, but our hearts were warmed by the time we got to spend with Gran and with our family in the Midwest.

To be able to see her face, hear her classic laugh, and enjoy her characteristic expressions of disdain — it lifted the spirits.

Photos galore!

Sadie comforts Guion during his morning headache. #ohio #familytrip
Sadie, my aunt and uncle’s “corgeranian,” comforts Guion.
#olympics watching. #familytrip #ohio
Watching the Olympics.
Birthday child. #familytrip
Grace turns 22!
Fuzzy bullet. Sadie! #familytrip #corgeranian
Fuzzy bullet.
Cousins! #familytrip #ohio
Cousin Sheridan and Kels.
Work tuff. #father #familytrip
Jak.
Ohio. #familytrip
Ohio. The unmarred snow.
Gran and the girl cousins! Love her. #familytrip
Girl cousins with Gran!
Young bros. #familytrip #ohio
The young bros.
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The family dog lovers.

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Reading birthday cards.
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Brothers don’t shake hands; brothers hug!
Snowy road trip fun. #ohio #familytrip
Long drive home through a snowstorm.
Guess who loves her Aunt Kelsey now? #thisdog #homesweethome
When we got home, we discovered that Pyrrha is kind of weirdly obsessed with Kelsey.

House updates, and Gran

Little things we’ve done lately around the house…

Hung old curtains in the living room and removed all of the mini-blinds:

Curtains hung in living room

Curtains hung in living room

(A subtle change, surely, but here’s the before.)

Curtains hung in living room

Painted my studio white (be gone, cream):

Studio is now white

Studio is now white

Painting the studio was emotionally hard. My beloved Gran had a stroke on Saturday, and the prognosis is not good/confusing. I’ve been crying a lot lately, and it’s somehow easier to write it here and not see your faces. If you are the praying type, please pray for her and for my family. Our hearts are raw.

I say that we painted the studio in her honor, because she’s the Patron Saint of Painting. The family says she’s painted everything in her cottage. Just a week ago, she was doling out painting and home decor wisdom to me on the phone (she was totally right about our mistake of using latex instead of oil-based paint for the ceramic tile). She also identified — BY SIGHT — the exact shade and brand of the gray paint we used in the kitchen and dining room (Benjamin Moore Gray Owl). She’s amazing. She’s all I can think about lately.

Family in Hatteras

We spent more than week away from the “real world,” which was magical.

First, we spent a little time in the Pines with Nettles

Nettles at some lake in Whispering Pines
Chris in some lake.
Nettles at some lake in Whispering Pines
Juliana reads Jhumpa Lahiri on the dock.

and left Pyrrha at doggy summer camp with Guion’s wonderful parents, and her puppy BFF, Georgia.

Doggy summer camp

And then we went to Hatteras and ate lots of food and talked and wandered around on the beach.

View from our beach house
View from our beach house.
Grandmothers on the deck
Ma-Maw and Gran.

I didn’t get any glamorous beach shots, because I didn’t want to take Louis in the sun and water, but these two photos give you a general idea of what we mostly did (ate and talked and ate and talked, and sometimes watched appallingly riveting television, such as “Swamp People”).

Beach laziness
MM, Kelsey, and Alex.

Beach laziness

You guys, I love these people that I happen to be related to by blood (and marriage).

The Midwest and our second anniversary

We spent the Memorial Day weekend trekking to the great Midwest for my grandfather’s memorial service. While the circumstances were sad, we had a wonderful time with Dad’s side of the family, remembering Papa John.

Rest in peace, Papa John.

On our last day in Indianapolis, we stood around his new headstone and talked about what we remembered. Remember that time he landed a helicopter in a tiny patch of grass in front of a Hilton, or in Aunt Shelly and Uncle Sean’s backyard, to the amazement of all the neighbors? Remember how he used to evaluate a car, running his hands along the sides, as if it were a racehorse? Remember how calm he was, how he never yelled at us?

Guion, excluded.

The weekend was blazing hot, but we managed to distract ourselves with multiple games of deck tennis and lots of unhealthy food.

Wrangling the family.

We don’t get to see this side of the family very much, so this was a cherished weekend. How nice it was to be reminded of where you came from, the qualities and predispositions that you bear, silently and mysteriously inherited.

The Farson siblings with their mother.

We came home the morning before our second anniversary. To celebrate, we went to Ten for dinner. I’ve been waiting for two years now to go to Ten, and it did not disappoint (even though it made me miss Japan and my host mom’s cooking more than ever). We sat across from each other and smiled, marveling at how quickly time has passed. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were dragging luggage into a hotel, still decked out in our wedding garb?

This sushi is not messing around. Anniversary dinner at Ten.

And now we are happy to be back to our new home, reunited with Pyrrha and our sprawling garden and out-of-control lawn. I am looking forward to doing nothing in particular all summer.