Those words came to Townes van Zandt in a dream. After a dose of codeine-laced cough syrup, the words and the music downloaded into his soul while he slept. He woke up long enough to record the words and immediately went back to sleep. When he awakened, he picked up his guitar, played the tune and did not change a note.
Thanks to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, I just listened to a tribute to Townes, one of the world’s best song writers, who died at the age of 52 on January 1, 1997.
I have been thinking about family a lot lately, probably due to Christmas. Today, in the program about Townes’ life, I heard a lot about “family” being absent. Absence comes in many forms.
Townes walked away from a Texas pedigree that could have provided a life of ease. Instead he wrote songs, performed them and caved in to a love of alcohol and drugs.
He married and divorced several times. His addiction kept him on the move. His son, Townes van Zandt Jr. talked about his first meeting with his father. Townes Jr. was five. His father picked him up at the airport, took him to a country home where Sr soon “shot up” and went to bed with a 15 year old girl. Townes Jr. described his feeling of desperation, but there was no phone to call his mother. A dog became his guardian. It became a shepherding playmate and uncannily hustled the lad outside whenever Townes Sr’s energy was building toward another fix.
How do people survive this chaos? How do some children come through these ashes and end up being such effective contributors to society? How is love for a parent so strong that, in spite of layers of abuse, love lives on and lights the heart for life and living.
Recently, I listened as a circle of people discussed the pain that permeates souls when addiction is let loose. One mother told of having to sit facing her crack-addicted daughter, in a Treatment Center, and tell the daughter the devastation and agony her behaviour created. I watched the shadow fall over this mother’s face as she told her story.
Another, a successful business woman, told of being in the daughter’s position while also in a Treatment Center. She had no one to call for the family exercises. Instead, she invited a woman friend who pointedly stated that not one of their friends trusted her around their husbands. Being an orphan was bad enough, but hearing bare, uncensored truth from friends hit a primal nerve.
Another woman ended up wondering who would be called in if she had to undergo such an experience. With parents gone, it would have to be one of four siblings. “Three siblings are alcoholic. Of those three, one has been incommunicado for years, another has Alzheimer’s and the third drinks heavily, travels constantly and hires people to look after him. The last sibling could not tolerate the stress. I’ve never called them with a problem. I don’t know if they’d even care.”
Family. “If I needed you, would you come to me?”
Who teaches us how to do or be family? We womb-dive into one without being told it’s not perfect. For years, we think it is. We absorb the conditioning, practice what we see and spend the rest of our lives sorting through the strange, secret feelings we have about family members. It can be devastating to realize we simply mimicked the people who talked the most, directed the loudest or looked the best. All of those elephants in the living room demand feeding. They seem to prefer soul food.
Jess Lair wrote in one of his books ( I Ain’t Much, Baby–But I’m All I’ve Got ) that if our parents screwed us up, shame on them. However, if we are adult and still letting them screw us up, shame on us. I agree.
My parents used their best sets of parameters. Both grandfathers were alcoholic – one a farmer/blacksmith and the other a manager on the Canadian Pacific Railway. “Healthy role models”, a term unborn in their formative years, would have meant a theatrical term to my mother and a working piece of equipment for my father.
My Dad’s work consistently took him away from home. I never learned how adults dealt with disagreement. I observed either honeymoon behaviour or passive aggressive silence that waited for Dad to go back to work. The amount of unfinished business in their marriage was enough to put their retirement on red alert. Rather than sail into golden retirement, they kick-boxed their way through ocean storms. Mom’s doctor prescribed a book for them to read: How to fight fair in love and war (and not hit below the belt). It was too little too late.
Mom and Dad stayed married, but not peacefully. Before Dad was accepted into a Care Facility in their eightieth decade, mother would escape his company. She would pack a bag, call a cab and head for a motel for a few days. She could hardly walk due to bad hips and rheumatoid arthritis, but she could still run away from home. She’d leave no hint of her whereabouts. When she was ready to return home, she’d call me. We would take a very long route home – generally plying her with a tasty meal and a couple of her favourite cocktails along the way.
The one time my father ever phoned me, he decided Mom had been away long enough. He was worried about her. I don’t think he believed that I had no idea where she was staying. When I helped Mom up the steps into the house, I could feel the softness of their monosyllabic responses to one another. It was not Hollywood style, but it was love.
After Dad went into the Care Facility, Mom’s spirits rose in proportion to her regained freedom. Mom needed to know that Dad was in her life, but at a distance. Love had room to flourish when they didn’t have to bump into one another.
How do we do family? Don’t ask me. When I see siblings phoning each other every day or week, when I see family members minding each others’ business, when I see the worry and stress over what family will think or do, I get a strong sense of suffocation. Co-dependency issues flood my mind, but I’m only following the textbook assessments. What allowance does life demand we make while we practice being in a family?
I recently told a friend, “I’ve stayed single not because I want to control everything about life. I’m single because I’m leery of being controlled over issues that are not my belief system.” Another friend, Toni, a man who has known me for 40 years, assured me that a healthy man does not want to control his beloved, only support her.
Promise? Does ‘support’ mean the same to you as to me? “I’d swim the seas for to ease your pain.”
Good thing I fell in love with Townes van Zandt’s words and not his person. I think I’ll learn “If I Needed You” and sing its question to my family at our next family reunion. I can take my time. The last reunion was in September of 1980.