7/19/2010

Ties that Bind and Blind


If your family's circle joins my family's circle, they'll form a chain. I can't have a chink in my chain.
(Robert DeNiro as Jack Byrnes, Meet the Fockers)


My Uncle, invoking God's blessing at Brittany's wedding, where our family circle grew to include Jeremy and his family.

Shortly after my daughter was engaged to be married, her future mother-in-law persuaded me to accompany her to a showing of the recently released movie, Meet the Fockers. As I sat in the theater, laughing along with the rest of the audience, I couldn't help but identify in part, with the beleaguered CIA agent Jack Byrnes. Sitting there, elbow to elbow with the stranger I might one day share my grandchildren with, I couldn't help but cringe at the possibility of finding a chink in my family chain.

I've always loved the idea of belonging to a large, close-knit, ethnic family, and have considered myself an advocate of traditional family values. The past eight years however, my understanding of what it means to be family, has been challenged in ways I'd have never imagined.

I've tried to be opened minded to the possibility that I, like Jack Byrnes am just too old-fashioned, rigid, or simple minded, but each time my moral standards and values have been tested, I've ultimately found that my best course of action is to go with my gut and stand firm. Ultimately, what we culturally refer to as tough love, has redeemed me.

Still, it bothers me that my philosophy of living stands in opposition to that of our society at large. Doing what I believe to be the right thing, isn't easy. I remain the square peg.

In 2005, Californian, Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife Laci. Her mutilated body and that of her unborn child, washed ashore near San Francisco Bay. Laci Peterson's disappearance, and her husband's subsequent murder trial, were widely reported by the national and local media.

Scott Peterson was arrested in the San Diego area, not far from his parents' home. He was found with almost $15,000 in cash on his person, credit cards belonging to various family members, survival equipment, and his brother's driver's license. His hair had been dyed, and he sported a new beard. Clearly, it appeared as though his family was aiding what was to be, his disappearance.

At the time of his conviction, we lived in San Diego, and attended the same church as Scott's parents, who maintained their son's innocence throughout. Watching the Peterson's attend church services, week after week, while their son fought for his life, was morbidly fascinating, and I simply could not stop trying to empathize with them. As a parent, I couldn't help but feel their despair.

More disturbing however, was my curiosity over how they managed to maintain faith in their son's innocence in the face of the evidence against him. Did they really believe him incapable of such inhuman brutality, or did they silently acknowledge their son's sociopathy and dismiss it? For me, to overlook such evil in the name of love, was almost as egregious as the murder itself.

Some say, one must love a child wholly and unconditionally. During the Peterson trial I wondered, at what point does a parent's love for their child, supersede good judgement and supplant ethics and values?

I don't know what sort of moral and ethical standards the Peterson's set for their children, or if they held them accountable to those standards through their childhood and teen-aged years but, their my child would never do that attitude, is quite common in today's society, and contrasts sharply to my own upbringing.


Mother's (back row, left) family.

My grandfather raised his family in a black and white world of his own design. There were no shades of gray - no ambiguities. It was easy to discern right from wrong, and you always knew if you were redeemable or not when you erred, for if you strayed too egregiously from the path, you simply ceased to exist as far as Grandpap was concerned. Heartless? Some would say so.

Many in the family considered my grandfather an unforgiving tyrant, and faulted him for his intolerance. He knew how they felt but didn't seem to care. He lost a brother to the bottle, when he fell into a river and drowned, leaving a wife and children to the charity of others. His own first-born babe was lost due to an irresponsible act of laziness. There would be no more tragedy, if he could help it.


Grandpap, with Grandma, on his way to work as a streetcar conductor.

In Grandpap's world, a man took care of his family, even if it meant he dug ditches or shoveled coal for a living. Fathers were role models, who kept their sons in line, even if that required a good whooping. Boys were taught to respect their elders, their mothers and their wives. Women were esteemed for being good daughters, wives and mothers. They cooked hearty meals, kept tidy homes, tended sweet smelling, rosy cheeked babies, and raised happy, well-mannered, god-fearing children.

My mother was the apple of her father's eye. She graduated at the top of her college class, married her brother's best friend and became a supportive wife, raised two children, attended church services every Sunday, and remained a dutiful daughter.


Mother lived up to her father's standards, and expected my brother and I to do so as well. There was very little room for waffling in our world. If, as children, we threatened to miss the mark, we could always count on a wary-eyed parent or relative to straighten us out. But, our world was not dark and repressive as one might think. On the contrary, the road we traveled was brightly lit and clearly marked. We could easily see where we were going, and knew where to stop for rest and directions.

As long as our grandparents were alive, there were no passes given, or excuses made for bad behavior. Everyone of us knew what was expected, and if inclusion within the family circle was important to an individual member, then a sincere effort was made to conform.When one of us missed the mark completely, salvation depended upon whether or not the offender was willing to admit the mistake, AND make amends. My mother impressed upon me, that there were rights and responsibilities associated with family membership. Like belonging to a club, you follow the rules, or drop-out.

Recently, while playing a game with a group of family members, the question was posed: Would you rather be a liar and well liked, or be honest and detested for it? As we lightheartedly debated, I realized how culturally significant the query really was.

Its often so much easier to go-along, to get-along, to tell people what they want to hear, and to compromise your moral values in the name of peace or family harmony, than it is to stand by your convictions and risk being disliked or alienated.

I doubt I'd have ever gotten my grandfather to the theater to see De Niro's portrayal of the traditionally conservative, Jack Tiberius Byrnes. But he was a big fan of slapstick, and I think he'd have gotten a hoot out of Jack's antics while trying to impress his values upon his family. I wonder if Papap would have recognized himself in the film?


Tom, offering a toast to his friend Jeremy and his new bride. In a few years, our family circle would expand again, to include Tom and his family. No worries - no chinks!

The Peterson family continues to plead Scott's innocence on their blog site. Interestingly, they also make note that they taught their son how to discern right from wrong. They blame the media and the American judicial system for his wrongful conviction.

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