“As long as the ties that bind us together are stronger than those that would tear us apart, all will be well.”
Today’s post is part film review, memoir and musing about the ties that bind us and explores the question of who makes up a family and how a family is made, nurtured, and maintained. This past Monday at the Wisconsin Film Festival, I saw Shepard and Dark, Treva Wurmfeld’s documentary chronicling the almost 40-year friendship between Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor, and his friend and chosen family member, Johnny Dark. Dark is a private man whose avocations are letter writing and photography. He is by some accounts, including his own admission, an avid archivist, which contrasted with his vocational resume of everything from dogcatcher to deli worker.
Throughout this past week the film has lingered in my thoughts. Shepard and Dark met in the early 1960s in Greenwich Village when Shepard was an upcoming young playwright with promise. Shepard married O-Lan, the daughter of Dark’s wife, Scarlett. The four made a family and grew larger when O-Lan and Shepard had a son, Jesse Mojo Shepard.
The film picks up when Shepard and Dark are reunited after years of exchanging letters, beginning when Shepard left his wife and son in 1982 (and chosen family members Johnny and Scarlett) to be with actress, then later his wife, Jessica Lange. Dark, Scarlett and O-Lan raised Jesse in his absence, and Jesse, Dark and O-Lan nursed Scarlett through rehab after her brain aneuryism and until her death. Throughout those years Shepard and Dark connected through their letters and Dark saved them all, including carbon copies he had written, archiving them in binders with photographs, videos and ephemera.
Shepard and Dark came together in 2010 and for eighteen months collaborated on an archive project for The Wittlif Collections of Southwestern Writers at Texas State University, San Marcos, TX. The two friends met to sort, review and select letters, photographs and material to be included in a companion book, each earning $250,000 for their work. The men found themselves revisiting their shared history as sons of demanding fathers, as chosen family members, brothers really, and witnesses to each others’ choices and paths in life, sharing love, grief and parenting along the journey. Shepard always felt like a vagabond, that he needed to keep moving. Dark by contrast was deeply grounded in his home.
The experience of being together face-to-face, man-to-man, and history-to history challenged them and accentuated their differences as much as it celebrated their shared lives. I won’t reveal the rest of the story yet it is a common one. Our relatives, chosen family members, friends and ex-partners and spouses are mirrors and memory banks that we can’t always escape. People who know us, our true selves, can keep us honest and humble, simply by their presence in our lives, loving both our light and shadow.
This is where the film review ends and the memoir and musing begins. I had the good fortune to return to my family home yesterday to celebrate belated birthdays of my father, Richard (Dick), and my nephew, Quinn and niece, Gemma. My parents still live in the small Cape Cod home they purchased in 1955. It’s a small house and when their five remaining children and their families fill it up, it is a raucous cacophony of loud competitive talking, like the well-crafted signature dialogue in a David Mamet play, and laughter. The kind of laughter that signifies love and recognition.
When we get together someone always has news to share, or invitations to extend, this year to my niece Taryn’s college graduation and my brother, Rick’s retirement party. I talked about my upcoming move, my sister Kelly told stories of her granddaughter Nala, a beautiful, four-year-old diva; my sister Cindy was celebrating the 4/20 holiday and sister Tami told parenting stories about how her eleven-year-old son Quinn called her the Secretary of Nagriculture and Nagatha Christie when she was talking to him about his unfinished homework! All the while my aging parents tried to keep up with the conversation, joining in when they were able. At one point my beloved mother, Ethel, who has lost all of her sight in her right eye, was sitting next to my brother and asked, “Does anyone know where Rick is?” We laughed. Earlier, she looked with her single good eye at my sister Kelly’s husband, Bill, and commented, “It looks like you’ve lost some weight!” Bill was happy to hear this assessment, but we quickly reminded him that mom is blind in one eye. Yes, teasing and sarcasm, sometimes snarky and prickly, also make an appearance when we’re together, yet at the end of the day we kiss, hug and say our good-byes with love.
I’m grateful I have a chosen family too, a network of friends who have supported me through the rough patches of my life, including coming out as a lesbian and becoming sober, and who’ve helped me survive the loss of love and loved ones. Like Shepard and Dark, they’ve kept me honest too, challenging my thinking and questioning my choices, rather than enabling me to keep repeating the same things and expect different outcomes. Though I love my parents and we are a part of each others’ daily lives today, there was a time we were estranged. Once I complained to my good friend of over thirty years, Sandra, that some awful behavior of my father’s was being channeled through me. She assertively and lovingly reminded me that it was now my behavior and I was the person able to change it, even if I couldn’t change my father’s. Whew!
During those few years when I was estranged from my family, my chosen family created traditions and rituals, sharing holiday meals and annual events which came to be known as the Orphan Holidays. Many of my friends shared recovery with me in AA, or Al-Anon, or Codependents Anonymous. There were many others who shall remain anonymous who helped save my life and for which I remain eternally grateful. There was a group of friends from those circles who I met with for fifteen years as a peer support group, based on our shared 12-step experience. The six of us met once or twice a month for those fifteen years, plus gathered for an annual holiday brunch and retreated twice a year, usually once in the summer and fall, to the Northwood’s cottage of one of our members. This group of women knew me better than anyone else in the world and when I needed advice, even when I resisted, their wisdom and insights helped me navigate my life with integrity. After the deaths of two of our members we couldn’t keep the group together. We had lost some of the vital connective tissue.
Today I have a new coffee and conversation group who meets monthly, PAL, an acronym containing the first initial of each of our names. When one of the group first mentioned our next PAL date, I didn’t know WTF she was talking about. When after a few minutes a light bulb went off above my head and I figured it out, I laughed alone and out loud. This is what good friends and family can easily do; make us laugh at ourselves.
Lastly, I need to include my ex-partners as chosen family members. Though all of my exes (and yes, I admit to having a few) are not in my life today, many are friends. With time, patience, amends-making and the simple act of growing older and wiser, many are still in my life and I can call them friends and family and more importantly call them in the middle of the night when I have a dark night of the soul. Next month, my lover Mary from when I left my marriage to my husband Frank, thirty plus years ago is travelling to Madison for some training and we’re going to have dinner and catch up. Though we haven’t seen each other for years, in the few sentences we wrote each other in emails to plan this date, embedded in those words were memories and recollections of times past.
In the next month I will be packing for my move. Part of that chore will require me to look at my personal archives of photographs, letters and ephemera and to relive memories of people and places I lived and shared with others. I’ll need to decide what to keep and what to discard. Then, on the other end as I unpack in my new home, I will rediscover these gifts from my past and the material goods that represent my life and still hold value and a place in my heart. The ties that bind.