Family means a lot to me.
When my grandfather was alive, my extended family on the Adkins side would often gather at my grandparents’ home. We had a saying, “If you ain’t blood, you ain’t sh*t.” This statement bonded us together by celebrating our relationships, but also was a battlecry to anyone who wasn’t blood kin – a playful jab to those who had married into the family.
That bond quickly disintegrated when my grandfather died. I was five years old. Huge fights erupted between siblings over money and whatever estate my Papa had left behind. I don’t know all the specifics of it. I just remember hiding in the hallway of our house as my mom and dad fought with my uncle. Unfortunately when the dust settled, we were no longer allowed to have contact with my uncle, which also meant cutting ties with his kids, two of my cousins.
My family didn’t learn from past mistakes. A similar pattern arose when my grandmother began losing her battle against alzheimer’s. You see, we’re Appalachian people. Culturally, Appalachians have a deep history of “taking care of our own.” When it comes to family, this dedication is even stronger. My mom cared for my grandmother herself, even bringing Mammy home to live with us for a while. I even helped by dressing Mammy on occasion. A memory burned into my pre-teen mind is of struggling to get her to raise her arms so I could apply deodorant. Regardless of the struggle, pawning her off for someone else, a stranger, to do these things was not a consideration.
For whatever reason, one of my aunts was not happy with the way we were providing for Mammy. She insisted that she could take better care and even accused my mom of stealing money. My mom could no longer take the stress and relented, allowing my aunt to take over caring for Mammy. My aunt didn’t do this for long before placing Mammy in a nursing home without telling the rest of the family. In those days and particularly to an Appalachian family, this was quite a scandal. As one might expect, these actions created another rift in the family, and we were no longer allowed to talk to that particular aunt, my uncle, or their kids – four more cousins lost.
Since I didn’t know anyone on my dad’s side of the family, my extended relations then consisted of one maternal aunt, my uncle, and their three sons. We clung to each other and became much closer, spending every Christmas holiday together, similarly to how the WHOLE family did when both my grandparents were alive. Into early adulthood, when thinking of extended family, I only had one aunt, one uncle, and three cousins, plus a gnawing sense of loss because I knew I had more, but somehow events changed our family motto to mean that even if you’re blood, we will still disown you. This was a huge leap from the days of “if you ain’t blood, you ain’t sh*t.”
Fast forward to 2005. I was working for Amazon in India, and one week before I was supposed to leave, my mom called me with the news that my dad had died of a massive heart attack. At that time Amazon did right by me and spent whatever money was needed to get me back to the U.S. as soon as possible. When I finally landed back in West Virginia, it was a deeply sad time, but I was consoled in the fact that my dad and I had reconciled before he passed. I had finally gotten to the point in my healing that I no longer found it useful to hold onto anger over many of the hurtful things he had done under the influence of alcohol. I even remember placing my hand on his coffin and saying, “I forgive you.”
My dad didn’t have much of a will. The document had been written more than a decade before and had no mention of what he wanted done with his remains. Dad had stated on several occasions that he didn’t want people to make a big deal out of the funeral, preferring that it be informal, and he wanted to be cremated. So, this is what we did. During visitation, my dad was dressed in a button down shirt, jeans, and sneakers. After, he was cremated, and my mom received the ashes.
Life became more confusing at this point. We remembered back to one rather amusing family conversation. My dad had said he wanted his ashes sprinkled in the Ohio River. My mom asked how we were suppose to accomplish this to which he replied, “Wait until it’s dark, drive over the 17th street bridge, and throw me out the window.” We all laughed. This was the only time my dad mentioned such things. My mom thought he had been joking, particularly since we had all laughed about it at the time, so she made no plans to do anything with his ashes except keep them in her living room under a statue of Buddha.
One of my three cousins, the middle child, took issue with this. My mom had passively told the story of the funny discussion regarding the Ohio River. My cousin acted as if he was horribly offended that we were not respecting my dad’s last wishes. Truth was, we weren’t sure what those wishes really were outside of not making a big deal of his funeral and cremating his body. Still, my cousin became angry that we didn’t spread his ashes. I guess he learned well from the lessons taught previously by our estranged uncle and aunt because he stopped talking to my mom, me, and my sisters. He even has all of us blocked on Facebook, as if we don’t exist anymore.
“If you ain’t blood, you ain’t sh*t.” I guess he now considers us sh*t, and I’m down to two cousins. I’m seriously confused by all of this because I had no idea that he thought so highly of my dad. At the same time, I bitterly think, “If he only knew what my dad had been capable of, maybe he wouldn’t be guarding his memory so strongly.”
I’m sad by all of this. The right lessons are not learned, and my family on the Adkins side continues to shrink. I know that this is a huge reason as to why I place such importance on my husband’s family and maintaining all of those relationships. I’m treated differently by them – not in an “if you ain’t blood” way – but since I married into the family, a great deal of importance is placed on me. I chose the family, I don’t love them because of blood. After the wedding, my father-in-law said to me, “Now, you’re not my daughter-in-law, you’re my daughter,” and that’s exactly how I’m treated, with that same level of regard…although I ain’t blood.