Oh friends, it is Tuesday and y’all need to get ready for a story. You may remember my friend Cathy from last year, when she let us into that voicemail that saved her life. And I’m telling you, she does it again. She’s family – distantly, somehow, I don’t always remember how – and she’s a friend; were she to live closer I have no doubt that we’d begin a weekly ritual of eating together. So, do yourself a favor and enter in to a story that is all her own. Enjoy.
Growing up, I did not have a lot that was consistent regarding family rituals. My family moved around…a lot. I was born in Newport, Rhode Island. Shortly after that, my family moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia. A few years later, we moved to San Francisco, California. Then we moved to the Chicago area. First, we lived in Oak Park, Illinois (suburb of Chicago)…then Elmhurst, Illinois (another suburb of Chicago), then BACK to Oak Park, Illinois. By the time I was seven years old, we had moved five times and lived in five different cities/towns (one of them twice!).
At the end of our second round of living in Oak Park in 1979, my parents broke the news to me that we were going to move again…this time to Portland, Oregon. My stomach began to tie up in knots as they showed me pictures of the majestic pine trees and sandy dunes of the Oregon coastline. They tried to show me how wonderful it would be, but I dreaded moving again. I was finally making friends. So I went through one of the few rituals I had come to know…saying goodbye. I told my friends that I wouldn’t be coming back to St. Edmund next year, because we were moving to Oregon. My teacher, Ms. Carroll, even let me make a tearful announcement to the class that I would be moving. And then…. we didn’t. We did not move. I was breathing a sigh of relief, when suddenly the other shoe dropped.
My rickety world as I knew it fell apart. My father suddenly moved out of our small condo (and unbeknownst to me, in with his lover, David) and my parents began an unnaturally long “separation” (that would end up lasting seven long years until their ultimate divorce) while my father explored his sexuality and my mother took on the job of raising me on her own. Any rituals we may have built as a family at that point quickly disintegrated, as my mother had single-parenthood foisted upon her unexpectedly.
Why did Daddy move out? Don’t you love each other? Doesn’t Daddy love me? If he loves us, why would he leave? These were the questions I asked my mother with a tear-streaked face, day after day. They seemed like very simple questions to me…but she could not answer them…probably because she couldn’t answer them for herself. I did not understand this new reality. I thought moving around was bad, but now I had lost my family. My dad was gone. I only saw him occasionally when it suited his schedule. I distinctly remember a friend coming over that summer to play, and we had a tea party on the lawn with our dolls. It was a Saturday, and my dad was not there. She asked, “Doesn’t your daddy live with you?”. I hastily made up a lie, saying that my dad worked on Saturdays and that was why he wasn’t around. The truth was, he hadn’t been living with us for months. But I was broken hearted about it. I was ashamed. I wanted to be like everyone else…I wanted a mom and a dad that were together.
The reality of my situation was painfully highlighted by the fact that at the time, Oak Park was the kind of place where large Catholic families raised their kids. I was at a parish school, St. Edmund, where it was commonplace to be from a family of eight or nine kids. One family I knew, The Dransoffs, whose mother actually babysat me and other kids from St. Ed’s after school, was 12 kids large. And I was an only child in this sea of big families. I was an oddball, and I felt it. I watched these large families go through their daily rituals of mealtimes, play and chores with a mix of admiration, envy and fascination. My friends complained that they had to be home at 6 PM for family dinner, or that they had to watch their little brother, or that they always had to go to church with their family on Sunday. I said nothing as they told me I was “lucky to be an only child” and that I should be so glad my mom didn’t “make me do stuff”. Silently I would think, “You have no idea. You are so lucky. I wish I was you.” I was the “adopted” kid in a lot of these large families. While my mom was working late or working weekends, I would hang around their big Victorian worn-at-the-seams houses like a groupie, watching them fight and play and laugh. This is family, I thought. Even during the times my friends complained about it, it seemed amazing to me.
I carefully observed these rituals in these large families like a little scientist. My life at home did not have many of these traditional family rituals, and I craved them like a glass of water on a hot summer day. I wanted to do these “boring” things my friends spoke of with great resentment. So I watched. And participated when they invited me to. And I stored away those family rituals like a little squirrel hoards nuts. Someday, I thought, I will do these rituals with my own family.
Finally, after many years, I am getting some of these rituals established with my own little family…just as I had hoped as a girl. Ironically, I married an actor, which is not a recipe for a humdrum ritual filled life. My 22-month-old son and I have spent the last 18 months touring the country with my husband as he performs in a Broadway national tour. Despite our ever-changing landscape, we have carved out rituals for our family. Naps, bath time and bedtime rituals are always the same, no matter the city. And while we have been home at our house in Oak Park the last few months, we have started going to church every Sunday. As our son grows, we will continue to add to these rituals, and I pray he someday can bring his friends to our house, and complain to them about how “boring” his parents are.
Cathy Meredith is a full-time stay at home mom with her 22-month-old son, Evan. Currently, Cathy and Evan are accompanying hubby/daddy James Vincent Meredith on his national tour of the musical, The Book of Mormon. Before becoming a stay at home mom, Cathy worked as an elementary school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools for four years. Prior to her career as a teacher, she worked for ten years in the not-for-profit world as a Program Director for an arts-education organization. She loves travel, photography, being an amateur “foodie”, and writing (when she has time!). You can connect with her on Facebook. Bada bing, bada bang – it’s Cara again, and I for one am humbled and blown away by Cathy’s honesty, by how she invited us into her story. Show her some love and encourage her as she craves rituals, will you?0