When You Don’t Know How to Feel About Family
By Katherine Lu
As the year draws to a close, I am swept into the ceremonial current of heavy dinners, forced family gatherings, and a pressure to love unconditionally. Don’t get me wrong—I love my family. Our unbreakable bond is usually the only part of life that I know I can rely on. Despite our fierce attachment, a rebellious need to break away gnaws at me whenever interactions last too long or veer into unpleasant territory. Family grates at us in ways a stranger cannot. Family tends to be held to higher standards of closeness, understanding, and compassion. Stakes are high: in this sense, the standards are set up to be unattainable.
In reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, I see that I’m not the only one frustrated with and preoccupied by how impotent our attempts are in making things right or perfect. Published in 2008, the book is a collection of short stories about family, identity, and disconnectedness. Lahiri’s characters struggle with these themes more intensely due to their Indian heritage, with layers of difficulties to deal with as they take root in foreign lands (like Boston and London). While it was reassuring to see characters carry strange expectation for one another, I also felt saddened by how relatable the relationships between the characters are. I interpreted their struggle to connect with each other as devastatingly ruined. They are incapable of crafting the family they hope to create. It’s impossible not to empathize with them on a deep level.
I was unaware that the book was a collection of short stories at first, and was disappointed that the first story had to end. I was eager to see how the relationship played out between the stay-at-home mother in Seattle and her recently widowed father who paid her a visit. In an interaction with her three-year-old son, the mother ruses, “There were times Akash would throw himself without warning on the ground, the body she’d nurtured inside of her utterly alien, hostile. Either that or he was clingy, demanding that she hold him while she was trying to make meals.” Within the first ten pages, Lahiri makes us feel the sting of imperfection and familial hurt. Though the characters in Lahiri's book are pained, this is no collection of sob stories. Regardless of their irrevocable mistakes, they move on – often with regret, making her stories feel so true to life – but also with a new version of a hopeful future to be crafted.
I recently rediscovered an Erma Bombeck quote I snipped from an old newspaper that reminded me of Lahiri’s collection. It reads: “The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.”
Family will always be this Sisyphean tug of war, where compromise and desire push and pull, perfection hovering uncomfortably at equilibrium. But if we are anything like Lahiri’s characters, we can trust that we will be made of stronger stuff in spite of the push and pull of our familial interactions.