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Spooky Action At A Distance

Plausible Undeniability

By Gil A. Waters

find the chickadee

Because I grew up in a bland, East Coast suburb far removed from my Midwestern roots, I rarely met any of my extended family members. Of course, since the invention of the automobile and the airplane, geographical distance only goes so far in explaining the relative dearth of family connections experienced by people such as I. A certain degree of emotional distance is also to blame. In the case of my parents, this emotional divide was in part the product of self-imposed, alcoholic isolation. Beyond that detail, however, was the fact that the families of my mother and father were unlikely to view one another with any real sense of familiarity, let alone friendliness.

Although neither side of my family was exactly over-populated by cosmopolitan over-achievers, at least my mother’s side included a few professional musicians and artists who lived in real cities like New York. My father’s family, in contrast, was more likely to include professional railroad and carnival workers in Wichita. When my mom’s brother would visit us and we’d all go out to dinner, chances were that he’d wear a well-tailored suit. My dad’s sister, on the other hand, was more inclined to head to the restaurant in her fuzzy pink bath slippers. It was habits like these that bespoke a gaping chasm in world view within my extended family unit.

The full breadth and depth of the un-familiarity between the two halves of my lineage became alarmingly clear to me during my first adult meeting with my father’s brother, Billy. I remember this encounter with the intensity of a childhood nightmare. My then-wife and I were in the midst of one of our periodic, cross-continental marathons: driving from coast to coast with only a couple of real over-night stops in which we slept in a bed. Since Wichita was on the way and roughly at the half-way mark, we figured that we should take advantage of my unused birthright to stay at Uncle Billy’s house free of charge.

I was disappointed, though hardly surprised, to find that my uncle bore more than a passing resemblance to my father; stocky, utterly bald, and devoid of the refined and delicate Irish facial features I shared with my mother. I was far more perturbed by the Pat Robertson book prominently displayed on the living room bookshelf and the sound of Rush Limbaugh’s voice emanating from the tiny, battery-powered radio on the bathroom sink. I suppose I could have derived some comfort from the placement of Mr. Limbaugh next to the toilet and from the fact that my uncle at least knew how to read. But it was too horrifying to admit to myself that I was closely related by blood and other genetic material to someone who not only felt an affinity for the psychotic wing of the American Right, but proudly advertised this political dysfunction as well. It was incontrovertible proof of the suspicion I had long harbored that I belonged to a family which had swung down from the trees and into the trailer.

Then again, I couldn’t be too surprised by this dramatic unveiling of my inferior cultural pedigree. My father had told me stories about his intellectually stunted childhood and the barbaric customs of his—our—extended family. There were the cousins who moved from Wichita to Oklahoma City to be closer to Oral Roberts. And the aunts who were known to pray along with the televangelist by placing one hand on the television screen and the other around a large glass of hard liquor. But there was a comic-book quality to these disembodied stories that stripped away any sense of connection to the characters and events my father described. I could still pretend, with seeming plausibility, that I was my mother’s child, but not my father’s son.

Standing there in Uncle Billy’s living room, however, the veil of surreality lifted and a terrifying pall of undeniability took its place. Not only were conservative troglodytes teeming and breeding throughout the barren landscape of Middle America, but I was one of their kinfolk. I felt dirty, as if I needed to soak myself in bleach for a few weeks to remove the genetic stain. But, like Lady Macbeth, I have no hope of removing that damned spot that marks each cell of my Midwestern body.

By the time I left Uncle Billy’s house, after a stay of only one night, I had learned that the government of Bill Clinton was, in fact, socialist. I had been informed that the residents of the nation’s capital should never acquire the right to vote because most of them are black. And, most disturbing of all, I discovered that Uncle Billy keeps a rifle on his porch to shoot the squirrels that get into his bird feeder, even though both he and the squirrels live in the suburbs.

I have never returned to the land of my birth since that last, fateful, cross-country drive, although I have occasionally flown over it with my eyes shut. But I’ve been unable to completely escape the tangled web of kinship that is my inheritance. When Aunt Martha dies, I’m sure to get a call from Cousin Betty, telling me how the funeral went, how Uncle Verne is holding up in the face of this tragedy, and how all of us should really try to stay in touch on a more regular basis. Chances are that I won’t know who Cousin Betty is and will have only the vaguest recollection of Aunt Martha and Uncle Verne, but I will offer my condolences and pledge to do my best to keep the family tree alive.

find the chickadee

© Gil A. Waters 2008