The Mess of Family

No story is a straight line. The geometry of a human life is too imperfect and complex, too distorted by the laughter of time and the bewildering intricacies of fate to admit the straight line into its system of laws.

— Pat Conroy, Beach Music

After Pat Conroy passed away in March, I immediately ordered a few of his novels from Amazon. I had this aching desire to immerse myself in the melodies of Conroy’s Low Country, but as I delved into his books, I soon remembered his tunes contained immense pain and startling images. Beach Music and The Prince of Tides have consumed my reading life for the past few weeks. Conroy’s prose is lyrical, his stories haunting, and his description of families stab the soft and guilty heart. There were times I was forced to walk away from the narratives. I needed a break from his tales of violent family storms. Pat Conroy’s childhood was a torment of brutal slaps which he then wove into his novels. His characters’ lives are shaped by their terrifying childhoods. Some offer forgiveness. Some choose madness. Some never recover. 

The stories in these novels got me thinking about the influence of family. These people are there at the beginning of our own stories. It is easy to blame mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers for all our scars. They touched us early, from the joys to the heartbreak. They cut deep wounds. They made us cringe and cry, yet our love for them is that deep ache in our chests.

Every family has its own saga. No family is perfect, no matter how many well-staged Facebook photos are posted. Each family has struggles. Secrets and ancient grudges can fill bookcases of scrapbooks. If anyone believes their family is free from angst, well…they are totally delusional, and frankly, reek of their own bullshit.

I often wonder about my own children. How much did the divorce affect them? Their stories are written in our split. Every decision they make, every relationship they forge, every step they take is grounded in it. I attempted to give them a “normal” life, but that fairytale ship sailed the moment I scooped up those two babies and moved back to my hometown. My story as a single mother rewrote and rewired my sons. I accept some guilt, but those chapters have already been published. No rewrite is allowed.

Our families can determine the outline, but we are in charge of the direction of the actual story line. Conroy’s main characters slowly figured this out. Tom Wingo was able to forgive his abusive father, and eventually learned to stop blaming himself for his family’s tragedies. Jack McCall began to accept his rambling crew of flawed brothers, and reached out for a new love after his first took her own life. Even Pat Conroy himself eventually pardoned the Great Santini’s transgressions.

Family is a major component in our complicated and complex histories, but the scars do not have to decide our future. We can embrace all the pain and all the joy, and see it clearly for what it is….a messy quilt knit with the blood of our clans. And what great stories we have to tell….

In families, there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.

— Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

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