Strangers with the same face

One of the moments this last weekend that I realized just how alien I felt in the town where I attended High School was when my Aunt Silly asked me if I liked living in Seattle. It wasn’t the question itself, nor was it even the extremely disbelieving tone of voice or her incredulous facial expression. It’s the fact that she, and several other relatives who live near her, have been asking me the same question, with essentially the same amount of incredulity, for at least a quarter of a century.

And they never accept, “Yes, I love it,” as an answer. They frown and ask, “Really?” If I try to explain, the puzzled expressions just get worse. The only times I’ve been able to get even a grudging acceptance is if I mention my work and how difficult it would be to find something similar there.

It made me think about a conversation I’ve seen unfold at work many times. In the tech industry there are always a number of co-workers who are from other countries, and sometimes people talk about the difficulties moving to a completely different culture, raising children and building a life on the opposite side of the globe from your own parents and siblings.

In the middle of a recent iteration of this topic (we were having some celebratory cake for a young man who was about to fly back home to get married) I had a somewhat shocking realization: it has been 25 years since I have seen my father face-to-face. This co-worker who flies to the opposite side of the planet once a year to visit his parents hasn’t even been alive that long.

So I shouldn’t be thinking about how odd it must be for him to go so far away to make his way in this world. Because by comparison, I’ve let more than mere physical distance separate us.

My dad and I have never been close. And I do mean “never.” I distinctly recall being scolded by both Mom and one of my grandmothers when I was four years old to make more of an effort to spend time with him. My other grandmother and an aunt have talked about how even when I was two we had problems—and not just the ordinary problems of an inexperienced parent with stubborn toddler.

How much of that was due to his abusiveness, and the co-dependent relationship that develops between a child and an abusive parent, I can’t say. But even without that issue, I think we would have had problems. In oh, so many ways, we are alike. But in others we’re completely different.

Physically we are so alike that it’s a bit spooky. For instance, once in high school (this was after my parents divorced, and I was living 1200 miles away), one of my friends saw some photos Mom had put up which included several of my dad in his teen years. My friend would not believe that the pictures were not of me wearing some costumes. He became so angry when I insisted that they were not pictures of me, that he stormed out of our house and wouldn’t talk to me for about a week. Even then, he only relented because he’d talked to Mom and she confirmed that the photos were my Dad (actually, one was of my grandfather, so the look-alike thing has gone on for a few generations).

We share a certain number of personality traits. While a lot of that might be learned behavior, some of them I think go deeper than that. Sometime in my late teens or early twenties I realized that some of his less pleasant personality traits were getting a bit too strong. I had to make some serious changes, because I didn’t want to carry on the cycle of abuse.

But in some fundamental ways we are very different, and I know that some of those differences were unsettling to him even when I was very small. My tendency to talk to myself in order to figure out problems certainly upset him. I resisted his efforts to make me conform to “boy’s toys” and the like. Not that I didn’t play with my army men and rockets, I did! But I was just as interested in “girl’s toys.” I could go from staging immense battles where the future of the entire world hung in the balance, to acting out hurt/comfort romances where my sister’s Barbie nursed Captain Action back to health after he nearly died saving my sister’s Ken from… well, I can’t remember the name of the monster toy I had.

And you won’t believe the drama that ensued—after months of him angrily telling me that I could not have an Easy Bake Oven, plus telling Mom in that tone of voice that meant someone was going to get slapped around if we didn’t listen that she wasn’t to let anyone buy me such a girl’s toy—when I opened a Christmas present from my paternal Grandparents and found my very own Easy Bake Oven.

And don’t get me started on the political arguments!

It was mostly because of the abuse, though, that I was happy to be separated from him after my parents’ divorce was final. I’m not entirely happy at just how deep that separation has become. Being 1200 miles from him also meant being 1200 miles from one set of grandparents, an aunt, a bunch of cousins, and more. I have a half sister who seems like a great person, for instance, but we’re really just long distance acquaintances.

But I’m obviously not unhappy enough about it to take a road trip and try to renew some acquaintances. I have my reasons, and maybe they are as good as I think there are. As it is, my other relatives who only live a few hours’ drive away only see me once or twice a year.

That’s probably the real source of those looks of incredulity when my aunt asks if I like living in Seattle. I’m not that far away, and yet I don’t get back any more often than as if they were half a world away. And that just doesn’t make any sense at all, does it?

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