How Do We Do Family?

Townes van Zandt - Song-writer Supreme - as well as Son, Father and Husband

“If I needed you, would you come to me?

Would you come to me and ease my pain?

When you needed me, I would come to you,
I’d swim the seas for to ease your pain…”

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.

60 thoughts on “How Do We Do Family?

  1. Amy, love discovering about artists I’m not familiear. Sadly, I have to admit, I’d never heard of Townes van Zandt until I read your post. The photo on the Wikipedia page about him is iconic, how tragic he died so young. I shall be looking him up on YouTube to get a feel of his music. Good music has no genres as far as I am concerned…

    • He’s one of these artists who is “an artist’s artist”. The musicians who are tremendously talented and famous were/are in awe of Townes. The general populace really didn’t have a lot of exposure to him. We listened to his songs and didn’t know the writer.

  2. Loved this post, Amy. This describes (unfortunately) my siblings and also similar but a little different to my parent’s relationship. You’re right, I don’t understand how families get all up in each other’s business. Guess we can’t relate?

    Your friend, Toni is correct. That thing about ‘if you love something, give it wings, it will come back to you – definitely. I always knew I had all the freedom in the world, but it never occurred to me to go anywhere.

    We grow up and some of us create our own families, right?

    • Yes, Arlene, it’s true. We do create families. I’ve had numerous other-families throughout my life, though my Dad and Mom were always the pivotal priority. And thanks to Face Book, I am delighted to be connected to the newer generations of the family. It’s great to have these other pockets, but my soul forever longs for my DNA clones. 🙂

  3. There is so much sadness here. When you get down to it, we all have our wounds and it would seem that they often impair our ability to be in healthy relationships…whatever they are. Back when our parents were young, psych interventions were “only for the weak.” I remember my mom’s response when I told her I was going for some therapy: “We don’t do that in our family.” We are fortunate to live in a time when it is accepted, even normal or encouraged, to address those things that mess with our well-being. The story of this musician saddens me. It seems so many creative spirits do succomb to addiction. Lots to think about in this. I am blessed to have friends who would be there for me, as I for them.

    • So true, Victoria. It is a blessing to have friends who would be there. And it’s a blessing to be there for them. This level of giving far outweighs the giving of material goods for so many reasons.

      I need to take a break from reading Canadiana literature. I’ve been appalled by the cruel, hard life so many Canadian farm children experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries. Those families would have laughed over the concept of “child labour”. If not the children, who? was more the attitude.

      Yet out of all that relentless hardship and cold family life, some incredible people rose to contribute profoundly to the Canadian mosaic.

      I’m reminded of the strength of the human spirit.

  4. This is a very interesting post here.
    I dont mean to be horrible to this guy but he sounds like a vile person.
    But doesn’t mean he cant do good music.
    It’s curious indeed,
    Me and my family are not so close.
    It’s not that we dont get on, it just that we have our own lives and dont integrate much.
    So on that note i am lucky to have so much freedom. lol

    • Apparently, Richard, when Townes was with other people, charm could spill out of him slicker than sour dough starter. Family had to roll with the punches. Many do exactly that and it’s accepted by family and society. Puzzling to me. I first noticed it when my Dad told me to move my car from the spot closest to the house. It was a “first come, first serve” spot. When I asked him why, he told me that the cleaning lady was coming. I asked if she would be having to carry stuff in and he said no. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or be proud of him.

  5. This post surprised me.

    When you’ve talked about your mom in earlier posts, I noticed no hint of the “discord” in your home. Your mom seemed a strong capable “feminist” and I pictured a supportive (not controlling) spouse by her side.

    I guess my brain chose to fill in the “missing link” with someone like my dad or my husband who prove the adage, “Happiness is being married to your best friend.”

    Family can be suffocating ~ wanting the individuals to hover around the nucleus rather than spreading their wings. Fortunately, both our families have been supportive without being suffocating . . . even when they felt we lived too far away.

    Like Alannah, I’ve never heard of Townes van Zandt. Thanks for the intro.

    • Our house was lively with conversation, opinions and self-expression. Mom was a strong and capable feminist. She married a man who was seldom around (like her father) so when retirement came, they both found it very difficult having someone around 24/7. Mom could fight for the world, but, like many I have seen in my life (personally and professionally), she found it very difficult to speak up for her own needs. Dad, also a strong individual, must have found it quite a shock to no longer be “in the company of men”.

  6. Parents can put great pressure on their children to be what the parent want them to be. As somebody once said you choose to have children but you do not own children they are not yours they are themselves. I think that goes for many relationships accept the person for what they are not for what they could be. If he was a good singer but a lousy dad than you still can enjoy his songs and say that is my dad.

  7. Go figure I struggled to let myself do an ‘earthly marriage’–my greatest fear wasn’t that my poor little heart would be broken, but that I’d end up divorcing the G-d that I married in my ‘singleness’ and somehow lose or compromise that spiritual ‘connectedness’.

    But I learned a whole lot about loving in my singleness–and my ‘job’ in relation to other human beings. Love just does its thing. (well said, Charles!) And it’s really cool to love as you’ve always wanted to love.

    As for the family ‘stuff’–it’s just stuff for me today. But I lived that ‘family secret’, ‘it’s all about the appearances and making it look good to the world around you’ stuff. I like that I lived long enough to become an ‘adult’ (I laughed when I typed that) and decided ‘shame on ME’ for staying in what clearly was not helping me grow into being all that I AM.

  8. This is a beautiful, and painful, piece.

    No matter how Zen I try to be about family, things still get to me. I find that I can bear little time in large family gatherings now, and no overnights if I can help it. Life has quieted for me, and somehow I feel I need and want to protect that. Yet, I am committed to my siblings, their spouses, and my many nieces and nephews (as well as my husband, daughter, son-in-law, and son. I am fascinated by the way people are shaped by family, and each differently within a family! And then how they use and take it with them into their life.

    • I share that fascination, Ruth. Whether observing my immediate family, those of my friends or those in the spotlight, I see such an intriguing and challenging walk. It’s one we take alone. Even our closest family members saw and see events differently.

  9. Amy, this is a fabulous post and you’ve probably set a lot of folks on the path to healing. Thank you!

    Like all things in life family, parents, marriage, children … a work in process. Life got so much easier for me when I learned to let people go their own way and to just quietly love.

    One of the sadestest things I’ve witnessed among friends is a women closing in on 80 who still can’t let go of the injuries imposed by her parents. She’s not even truly present today because of this and not much more time here. Sad.

    Why is it we want to be forgiven for our follies and foibles and yet expect that our parents and kids should be “perfect,” whatever that is?

    I’m persona non grata in my family because I compounded an illegitimate birth with marriage outside our ethnic group. They were products of their time and place and suffered for it, I’m sad to say. I let everyone go except my mom, whom I fought for and I think that was the right thing to do. It took years.

    The bonus: I may not have known what to do when raising my son, but I knew what not to do. We’re solid. All works out in the end.

    Love your wonderful, compassionate posts. An island of love in a sea of banality.


    • Yes, Jamie, being able to accept and let go is a major move toward freedom. Takes courage because often it means letting go of people we are supposed to love, according to family dictates. Being able to do it with an attitude of love is a supreme victory. It removes the health attacking remnants that can hide in surprising places.

      • All true and thank you for your kind words, Amy.

        I would only add at this point that unconditional love is love without expecting anything back or imposing our own standards. I love all my family very, very mich. I think they are dear and worthy people.

        Thanks for being darling you. 🙂

  10. An amazing post Amy. A good friend of mine used to say “family is far too over-rated’ and although I don’t subscribe to that thought, I do feel, that in this day and age we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that if we don’t have a Walton’s – style relationship with our family members we are somehow abnormal. I love my seven brothers and sisters fiercely and unconditionally — they sometimes make me crazy and months can pass before I’ll give them a call, but they are always with me and I know they’d come if I called.

    I’m sorry you had to go through that hardship with your parents, it seems like you got stuck in the role of mediator, but I’m glad you managed to maintain a loving relationship with both of them.

    Townes Van Zandt is now on my list of things to do.

    Thanks, and have a great year!

    • Thanks Kathy – hope you are doing well in your determination for good health! Your approach to your family is very much like mine. I have not had to call on them, but I hope they would be there for me!!

      Jamie, one of the commentors, mentioned a movie that I’ve not watched. You may have read the write-up for the movie that she included:

      “Perhaps one of the most underrated songwriters of the last century, Be Here To Love Me chronicles the fascinating and often turbulent life of Townes Van Zandt with a simple unpredictability that mimics the way the artist lived his short life.”

      Many of us would not of heard much about Townes since he was more a musician’s musician.

  11. A very touching story of your mom and dad.

    As Townes’ mother in law, I wanted to touch on Townes for a minute for those who don’t know him or his music. First his songs are awesome. don’t miss the chance to hear ‘him’ sing them. As for him pesonally, he was a very spiritual man. And he was a person that would give you the shirt off his back, and did at times. The only fault Townes had was his sudstance abuse and that made his life and everyone close to him a living hell. When he was sober you couldn’t ask for a better human being. He wasn’t a vile person and all that knew him loved him.

    • Thank you for writing, Mary! And thank you for confirming a suspicion I had after hearing the CBC program the other day – he had a good dose of spirituality. In fact, I suspected he had insight that went beyond the norm. On one of the past interviews that was played on CBC, Townes said that he knew he’d live a short life. He said something to the effect that he would be gone before his work was done. What a profound insight – and it proved to be the case.

      The musicians who “introduced” me to Townes’ music, years ago, spoke about him with such reverence that I had to listen to his music. Then, as you indicate, Mary, when listening to Townes sing his songs, his soul came through those words with quiet, yet overwhelming, abundance. I saw, and still see, grace and dignity.

  12. You touched my soul with this one… “family”… something I’ve always envied and longed for… with a distant dad, drugged mother… both in their own worlds and me in my own. “Family”… something I crave for so much… now a fault of mine. I don’t know how to act… wanting someone to like me so much, they will take me in. Make sense? I don’t know.

    And I agree with this as well: “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.”

    • Good to hear from you HisBell – A quote from Rosaleen Dickson resonates with me as I read your comments – because I know you are a mom: “Whatever they grow up to be, they are still our children, and the one most important of all the things we can give to them is unconditional love. Not a love that depends on anything at all except that they are our children.”

      We may not have been loved in the manner we hear about that makes us drool, but we can love our family in that manner. The biggest and most effective start to all of this is to give of our TIME. It really seems that simple. Stop the demanding, disruptive, damned world long enough to LISTEN and really hear that tiny request.

      We really need to be heard, HisBell – and I hope I’ve heard what I suspect is one of the deepest and most loving parts of you.

  13. Amy, this post is very sad even by my standards..! Amy, all along why was I praying that this was part of your mini fiction writing series or something. Until I read Sep, 80 I had my doubts.. I can tell you what I personally struggle with, is family more overrated or friendship?!
    Do I have a long way to go before I lose this remaining faith in relationships..?! I am spiritually stupid, but every morning I get up and do two things..
    1. Have no expectations from anybody in this world – friends or family – and if it happens pat myself on the back amused wondering if I did something to deserve it.. This on most days includes my two sons I named Eternal salvation – their meanings in Sanskrit..
    2. Let everyone find out their mistakes after the fact – don’t go out of my way to preach anyone what I think is good or best for them – in other words, mind my own f’n business – too burnt from my own and others’ experiences in this matter..
    Amy when everyone of your friends is showering love I feel like a horrendous mean b*tch, so I stop here 😦
    And next time I need a funnnnnnnnn post and not something that will make me cry, that Includes all the comments too.. Now no need to flip the waffle, right?!
    Lots of love, always smile as if you are holding the yummilicious rainbow cake!! Hey on a brighter side, you are on your way to celebrity status – cue, Mary 🙂
    We will still be friends after this, I hope.. 😦

    • Keep your faith in relationships, Rachana! I share that same belief – even though, for 25 years, I have been exposed to shocking family stories from people who are determined to be honest in order to heal. As I indicated in the post, I marvel at the ability of the human spirit to rise above the ashes.

      But then, one of my favourite prayers is the Prayer of St. Francis. It gives me a great blueprint for living.

      Your morning practice likely includes what I hear from the Guides regularly: Accept, forgive and love. Can you imagine Nations practicing your approach with other Nations? Imagine if you could be a person who counseled world leaders!

      I don’t find your comments “bitchy”, Rachana. Authenticity is so important because it encourages others look at themselves. When a person cares enough to risk being honest to me, I see the truth being delivered in a package of love.

      • Thanks for introducing such a great prayer with such a great message Amy! Even without one’s religious interpretations, this just speaks to all of us as humans.. Great!
        Amy, thanks for taking my words exactly in the way that I meant and not more than that.. See I was probably hinting at not being authentic around loved ones if that meant life long “relationships” with family..
        But, again, this might be the difference between friends and family.. – Where you cannot be yourself and where you can be yourself to be admired and loved.
        So much love,

        • And, Rachana, I suspect that we look for friends who will allow us to just be who we are – in the same manner some of our family members do/can/did. We all long to be loved in spite of our foibles. For that reason, I accept that while I may not ‘like’ some of my family members some of the time, I can and do always love them. It’s the same with friends, but it’s vital, for me, with family. Sometimes it’s hard to see it being reciprocated, but I believe it is. I have suspected that DNA has some magnetic force!! 🙂

  14. I agree with the others, Amy: this is a wonderful post. It’s honest, sensitive, insightful, philosophical, and human all at the same time, and even has touches of gentle humor. Mine was a family of secrets, so I know that as painful as the truth is, it’s much easier to deal with it as it comes, rather than confronting it all at once. Maybe we all need to do more of this. It might help to defuse the tendency so many people have to lash out at others. Thank you for writing this.

    • Thank you, BB, your comment means a great deal. As you said, it is easier to deal with it as it comes. This requires some skills. Who is teaching them if parents don’t have them? Perhaps we need to invent a fun video game that would teach both children and adults.

  15. What a very thoughtful post, Amy. I have met times of great sadness with my family but also great joy. I have spent the quiet times and the boisterous times. I, for a long time, thought family as over rated and acted upon my beliefs. I have been both hugged and shunned, but regardless of all of it they are the most precious relationships I have had this lifetime. I have learned from them. ….and as I read your post, I searched for the reason why I feel this way and I can tell you that they have been the BEST WINDOWS TO MY SOUL I could have ever asked for. I have learned to be a daughter, a sister, a Mother, and am currently learning to grow in Grandmotherhood and not because of how they told me to be but because they just were and are. I have watched as we have each left and returned, lost children and parents and grandparents, suffered tragedy and celebrated success. No better stories than those written in my memory that help me to relate to the world around me. Thank-you for causing me to ponder these gifts of family.

    • And it’s such a delight and privilege to have your comment on this site. It is only with family that we can be prodigals. Your grandchildren are likely even more fortunate than your children – the seasoning is to their benefit.

  16. My word Souldipper…your post certainly touched a lot of people…me included.
    I decided,long ago, that there is no law that says you have to love yor family.
    I CHOOSE my friends and they mean the world to me….if I needed help it would be my friends I approached.
    I am generalising a bit…there are one or two family members who would help…the rest are too damn needy for my liking!!!!

    • Hi Granny. Thanks for your welcome comment. The family issue hits lots of buttons. Some people steer away from it and absorb the pain like an ache in the shoulder that just won’t go away. Others live through it with grace in spite of the challenges. Like parenting, who has the PhD?

  17. To me, real love is inter-dependant…not co-dependant…each partner needs, and wants and loves the other the same…which, when I re-read that sounds a little too much to ask for. Lol.

    Families…well, I sure don’t know what to make of them either, apart from I know that they are often a lot like Christmas…the veneer is one that is respectable and all nice and proper…but the reality can be very depressing.

    Looking forward to your next post my friend xx

  18. Hi Amy .. I love your last sentences .. If I needed you – would you come to me .. 1980 is a long time ago! I have to say family is difficult for me .. and I’ve recently messed it up again – because I feel they don’t feel .. but as a lady with wisdom of 92 years said .. they won’t .. but you can: so true.

    A small family can be very difficult and no children .. they won’t adjust, but I must and accept them … it’s a strange old life – but I guess if I couldn’t deal with it – the cards wouldn’t have been dealt this way .. open my heart, let my being free, and just be me as best I can around them … they are all I’ve got .. thanks for these posts .. Hilary

  19. Thank you for reminding me to count my abundant blessings, Amy. I’m right with your friend Toni that “a healthy man does not want to control his beloved, only support her.” – and the same for family.

    • Thank you, Maggie. My mom warned me that there would be very little family connectedness after Dad and she were gone. She was right. Again! At the time that she mentioned it, I just let it roll on by – wondering why it was concerning her. She was such a wise woman!

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