Never mind the Duggars. . .

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, October 17, 2007 | , ,

I have had it with talking, with explaining. "I have a kid's book coming out next fall," I say to Wood's millionaire Shanghai-sweatshop-running Uncle, who's smoking a cigar while I'm singing Juniper to sleep in my arms outside the funeral home, and he's pestering me with all kinds of questions about what a person---who is by all accounts a man---does with his days when he no longer has a job. This is the man whose white-gloved driver once gave us a tour of turn-of-the-century Shanghai back when Pudong still seemed like it had suddenly emerged from the muck, while he was off cracking the whip at the Chinese street urchins who knit the sweaters he sells to Land's End and JCrew. I might as well have told him I had taken to wearing adult diapers and playing video games all day.

Wood's mother has seven siblings, and all six that are legally allowed to return to the United States made it to the funeral. It must be something to be a part of a family that big. As the night grew long and the bottles of scotch and rum emptied, the conversations grew louder and louder, and you could almost imagine yourself back forty-some years in the days when seven kids between the age of eighteen and one sat around a single dinner table. They always tell stories of communal childhoods one or more of them haven't heard, like how their mother used to tie one of them to a tree in the front yard when he was a baby because she couldn't watch him and the others and do laundry and make supper all at the same time, or they discuss how another one wasn't circumcised and how the rest of the sons gave him such a hard time. So one child who was there will tell a story and the others who were also there pipe in to tone down hyperbole or outright falsehoods, and the ones who were babies or in the army or working as stewardesses at the time sit enraptured as though listening to the stories of some other family who grew up on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. "Do you remember the night I had to watch the youngest five while mom and dad went downtown, and I thought someone was breaking into the house because I kept hearing these loud booms at the front door?" Some admit they don't remember the story, so she continues: "I had to call the restaurant where they were eating and dad rushed home to find a blind man at our front door, banging a broom handle against it over and over. I guess mom had bought a broom from a blind traveling salesman, and I mean, he's blind, so he didn't know it was the middle of the night I guess when he tried to drop it off." Then the sisters launch into a fifteen minute conversation about who used to wear whose clothes and how they tried to sabotage such thievery or conceal it.

One of Wood's aunts lives in Hollywood; her husband is ten years younger than her, a television editor who used to work on Family Matters and send Wood autographed photos of Steve Urkel. They have two young daughters, and they used to lavish them with princess birthday parties and carefully arranged meetings with the Olsen twins. Now, it's all about Hannah Montana, who is apparently the Elmo of the 8-14-year-old set. This aunt is one of the family's dominant storytellers, so everyone was regaled with tales about how her husband "got tickets to the Hannah Montana concert because he knew somebody who knew somebody, and this is like the hottest act in Hollywood right now---we even heard John Travolta couldn't get tickets---and would you believe it the next day we were shopping at one of those chic boutiques you always read about in Us Weekly and in walks Miley Cyrus and her entourage, but she was totally down to earth and signed autographs" for her girls. Clearly, Hollywood aunt is a "cool mom." Remind me to keep Juniper away from her in about six years, lest I be forever known as the least cool parent in history. Hollywood aunt is, as I write this, packing up a box of "princess outfits" that no longer fit her youngest, postage paid to Detroit, Michigan.

As with any family of eight, along with the millionaire sweater magnates and Hollywood gossip queens, there are sisters who drink too much and brothers who never got a break in life. But for all their craziness, every few years or so these people come together and prove they really are family, bound by something greater than themselves. Weeks like this one help me to better appreciate my mother-in-law, the median child, to better understand why she sometimes repeats things over and over as if she doesn't believe she's ever going to be heard. It can't have been easy to have been born right in the middle of all of this. Weeks like this do also help me appreciate the inherent virtues of family, those people willing to travel to you from all over the world to let you lean on them when you are so close to falling. And there, at his own wake, after hours of increasingly drunken stories, I found an even greater appreciation for Wood's late step father, a man who lived for twenty years on the periphery of this family, working his way into their hearts, until one day, like me, he must have realized he was a part of it. And, as a true measure of his character, he didn't turn tail and run.