This past weekend I completed my annual Filial Piety Tour back to Charlottesville, Virginia. On the occasion of this year’s pilgrimage back to my roots there was the usual amount of resentment at having to undertake this grueling trek as well as having to take time out of my busy San Francisco social life, though this time that general resentment was also leavened with some specific dread over the condition of my step-father following his massive heart attack, as well as the conditions under which my grandmother now lives following the death of my grandfather and her having to move into a nursing home. As it turned out nothing was as bad as I thought it would be, to echo my Grandmother’s assessment of her situation, and now that my nephew, Joel, and my niece, Alexis, are old enough to have personalities, I was able to derive some enjoyment from at last being able to play the role of corrupting Uncle that I have so longed for.
I could spend this whole blog entry enumerating the ways in which Charlottesville offends my sensibilities, from the preponderance of eatertainment establishments to all the guys clad in the frat boy uniform of Birkenstocks, khaki shorts, polo shirts, and baseball caps, to the craven politics of the NPR horse-farm bourgeoisie, but that would miss the point of these trips, which have more to do with family than any of the usual reasons I travel outside of my Northern California bubble. Much of my resentment over these trips stems from my experience of trying to have a social life in this land of white-haired Republican CEOs and jam-band aficionados, and having to leave behind what I’ve built for myself in San Francisco for this cultural wasteland, even if it’s only for the span of a few days. What I finally realized on this trip, though, is that none of that should really concern me any more, since it is to San Francisco that I do eventually return.
Just as I’ve been able to gradually give up a general loathing for my family’s city of residence, I’ve also developed a greater appreciation for the time I spend with my family, especially since my niece and nephew have finally reached an age (7 and 9, respectively) where I’m able to interact with their nascent personalities (I have a second niece as well, but her vocabulary is presently limited to the word “mine!”). At long last I get to be as avuncular as I want to be, indulging their interests, taking them to bookstores and skate shops, and engaging them in conversation on topics as diverse as tattoos, piercings, gangs, how I met the boyfriend, and other things that my sister and her husband are either unable or unwilling to talk about (while sex and drugs have not yet been broached, they certainly loom on the near horizon). I spent an enjoyable evening sitting on the front porch with Joel, tuning his new half-size Gibson electric guitar and explaining a few music fundamentals to him (and correcting his friend’s assertion that Djing is all about showing up and setting up your gear), and sitting in the Starbucks café at the local Barnes and Noble with Alexis as she read to me from a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice that I had just bought here. My prediction is that Joel will turn to an artistic path of some sort, while Alexis, with her love of wordplay and her ability to call bullshit on you with just a cock of her eyebrow, will be the family intellectual.
My step-father and Grandmother, both having recently found themselves in positions of that required them to deal with their own mortality, provided a contrast to the life blooming within Joel and Alexis. After surviving a heart attack, and surgery, that all the medical specialists thought should have done him in, my step-father continues to exhibit his characteristic laconic wit, and on Saturday we awoke to find him manning the leaf-blower in the back-yard. At the same time, he has lost 35 pounds off an already thin frame, regards it as an accomplishment that he can walk a half-mile to the end of our road, and has to sit in the back seat on trips to doctor’s appointments – the wire sutures holding his chest together could break if he was sitting in the front seat when the airbag went off. Though not the sort to make any outward show of it, I can tell that there are large questions weighing upon his mind concerning the path of his life now that he can no longer continue on with the kind of grueling physical work he did as a underground electrical line construction supervisor. The shadow of the Grim Reaper passed over him, and I believe he caught a chill that it is going to take a while to shake off. My Grandmother, meanwhile, is adjusting as well as can be expected to her new residence in a nursing home, aided, in some degree, by the Aricept prescribed for her failing memory and mental faculties. She says that the situation is not as bad as she thought it would be, and I would say that the home is not the Bedlam I expected, though it did lead me to reflect that we are more humane towards our pets at the end of their days than we are to other human beings. I had a pleasant enough afternoon with her, eating lunch and then taking a drive in the countryside, but her mind is clearly fading, and we looped back upon the same four or five topics of conversation during our time together. However, I can also see that the mental storehouse is being cleared, and many things unknown to my mother and myself are finally seeing the light of day after decades of being hidden away, including some information that leads to the strong conclusion that my Grandfather was probably homosexual – this makes sense of many things, but it also makes my Grandfather’s silence about his personal feelings, which I always took as a general reticence to engage in unmanly talk of emotions, a sign of a greater personal tragedy. All was well with my grandmother until the night of my departure, when she called me, and in between sobs of great emotion, told me she loved me and had forgotten how much I mean to her. My mother told me that my Grandmother is afraid that she will forget me, as she has forgotten my Grandfather’s face and the sound of his voice in only four months, and that she won’t see me again, either owing to her own death or her inability to recognize me when I make my next visit. As someone who believes that there is always a solution to every crisis, and who will do almost anything I can to save someone I care about from physical or mental pain, it’s difficult to deal with a situation like this in which I am powerless to do anything except send cards, and make phone calls, that I hope will provide a temporary buffer against inexorable physical processes.
I may resent my trips home because they take me away from things I want to do here, but in retrospect I think it’s more important to have these messy encounters with the passages of life, and my own roots, than it is to have yet another roll at Kontrol. It seems that almost everyone in San Francisco comes here from someplace else, a city full of seekers and those anxious to re-invent themselves, gay boys escaping the cultural oppression of their small towns, kids out of college seeking their fortunes, artists and freaks who come here seeking fertile grounds for self-expression. We are a city populated by those looking to make something of themselves, and that's a large part of what brought and keeps me here, but in the process of building our worlds it’s easy to mistake our personal constructions, our social cliques, our career maneuvers, for being the sum total of reality, rather than just as a set of toys we get to play with while we’re here. Going back to Virginia is like a taking a tonic so powerful, so restorative to my mental and emotional perceptions, that taking it more than once a year runs the risk of making all that I believe is so important here seem, at best, the trifling conceits of a self-centered child.