Commentary: Some people only have ‘this little shred of family’

Before Pa strung it up, the bream (a fish) flopped around in the boat bottom and Kya had to watch a distant string of pelicans, study the cloud forms, (do) anything but look into the dying fish eyes …. But what it cost her and what it cost that fish was worth it to have this little shred of family. Perhaps not for the fish, but still.

-From Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

In an internet search - as in photos from the red carpet - they are front and center.

But the boob I have in mind is singular.

And unlike the plural form, which is the fourth definition in the dictionary I checked, the definition I have in mind is the first.

When I was growing up, it was most often used to point out the kind of person Yosemite Sam might have called an “idjit” or “maroon” in outbursts that were the spittle-filled Tweet storms of an earlier age.

In that sense, boob was most often paired up with the rhyming word “tube” to create “boob tube” or television.

Decades ago, when Crest commercials advertised that those who brushed with it had 25 percent fewer dental cavities, the boob tube was the rough equivalent of the anti-Crest — a device thought to cause 25 percent or more mental cavities in those who had too many brushes with it.

And so it seems odd to confess that it took a fall down the basement stairs two months ago for me to stop staring at the boob tube so much and start reading again.

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That was facilitated by a Kindle and a daughter kind enough to help me shop for the right one.

Which is why last week I was reading Delia Owens’ current best-seller, Where the Crawdads Sing” and came across the quote that opens this column.

The passage likely would have caught my eye anyway.

But during the holiday season, conversations with a couple of friends gave the words “this little shred of family” a particular sense of desperation for me.

For those friends, both women, time spent with family during the holidays is less fun than the annual mammogram.

It’s nearly always wrapped up with fear, tied up tightly with a ribbon of anxiety and played out to a soundtrack of jangled nerves rather than jingled bells.

Not wanting to let go of their “shred of family” but never free to simply enjoy it, their experience of family ties at the holidays made me remember a line from the Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

In the hymn, the words have a broader religious meaning. But for my friends, the emotional high stakes involving the fragility of family are the same as what the song portrays as the high stakes for the human family on a dark night in the streets of Bethlehem: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

For so many people I know, those fraught moments of family togetherness are over for another year, to be stowed back in the attic next to the artificial tree, where they will bake during the summer and be served up next Christmas.

My friends’ two situations are different.

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One considers herself the black sheep of the family - the one who is decidedly different and whose differences that are not embraced but misunderstood. What seems most important to her, she tells me, seems a waste to her family - a waste of the live that in which she finds her fullest meaning.

The other’s more pitched battles are years in the past, and a kind of silently negotiated peace has held for years. So though a brother sent a birthday present - and that was nice - she is largely separated from other family members by a cold wart style demilitarized zone acknowledged by all parties.

The various situations that lead to family conflict reminded me of one my all-time book and movie titles from an earlier period of reading: “Terms of Endearment” by the Texas writer Larry McMurtry.

I like it because while “terms of endearment” are usually thought of a sweet nothings or pet names shared by those who are in love, a second meaning of the word terms is conditions - as in the no-nonsense terms or conditions of a contract, an agreement about a relationship.

Those harder terms tend to be like the terms of a contract, hammered out by two sides accustomed to the sharp language and volume brought to mind by the word hammer. A hammer, I’m reminded, is a tool with tempered steel.

For those with struggles of any sort who made it through another holiday with family, congratulations. It may stand as evidence of your own persistence and may have been made possible by the persistence of those on the other side of the divide.

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For those with struggles of this sort who were apart from your families, either congratulations or word of kindness are due. Sometimes separation is the best resolution, offering at least the amount of peace that can be gained from a written-off debt.

Other times, perhaps not.

In this passage from Where the Crawdad Sings, Mya finds herself in the never-quite-decided boat with her father, a violent, drunken and abusive man who has driven off nearly everyone in the family, but for the first time has enjoyed moments with her.

What I found most powerful in the excerpt is how it expressed Mya’s persistent desire for wholeness with family even under those unholy circumstances.

“What it cost her and what it cost that fish was worth it to have this little shred of family. Perhaps not for the fish … but still.”

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