A few years ago, I went to a Rosh Hashanah meal at the home of a friend. It was lovely, until the moment when my friend’s father asked, “So, Chanel, where’s your family spending the holiday?” I felt that familiar cold and burning sensation in my stomach, which generally accompanies these totally innocuous questions for which I have nothing but sobering answers. “It’s complicated,” my friend quickly told her father, and then he changed the subject.
It’s no one’s fault that this happens. Someone should be able to ask me, casually, where my family lives or what my parents do without sending me into a sweaty panic spiral. People ask each other things that are far more problematic and offensive than “Where are your parents from?” Take, for example, “When are you two getting married?” And then there are the zingers about children: “Are you having kids? Why not??”
The reality is, people generally assume that you have at least one living parent, that you talk to them and visit for holidays. This isn’t the case for me, though. My mother and grandmother are dead, I haven’t seen my father since I was seven years old, and I don’t have consistent relationships with my remaining relatives. No one is prepared for that answer. And for some reason, I am still not prepared for the question. I fumble. I pause too long and then I give a vague response. I make the person asking the question uncomfortable, trying to find a way to explain the situation. (To the question “What do your parents do?,” I’ve considered answering, ‘Well, my mother’s dead. Would you say that’s an occupation?” It’s totally destabilizing and unfair to the person who is just curious about me. I’m sorry, stranger with good intentions.)
My fear of these kinds of uncomfortable moments makes it hard for me to participate in activities like holiday meals, especially when there are people who don’t understand the flood gates that a seemingly simple question can unlock. In the communities I’ve trafficked in, it’s considered normal to meet someone and invite them to a meal the same day. Once, when I was traveling, someone found out I had spent the previous Shabbat alone (out of personal preference) and got really upset because I hadn’t invited myself to her house. It’s not just that I feel weird doing that, fearing that it’s rude, but the less you know about me, the more likely you are to ask me about my family.
I realize that I could be blowing this out of proportion. What’s actually at stake? Some moments of awkwardness on my part, and the other person (or persons), which either we’ll recover from quickly or we won’t. Moving on will happen eventually. Still, it’s hard. I walk away from these situations frustrated, usually, at myself for not being able to handle it more gracefully, even after all this time (it’s been 15 years since my mother died), or at the person, for assuming that this is a straightforward, easy, non horrifying question with a breezy answer.
I would love to put the whole ridiculous story on a business card and hand it out to people who have questions. I wish the friend’s fiancée I met on the street the other day could have done a better job of reading the too long silence that followed the question “Where do your parents live now?” I wish she had not gasped when I told her my mother is dead, and that I had not apologized for startling her.
This is the thing about loss, I guess. It’s scriptless. It makes minefields out of casual encounters. It creates endless, unpredictable holes. It’s relentless in its surprises and aftershocks, and makes things that are supposed to be simple very difficult. I think often that I would be thrilled to shiny, glittery bits if no one ever asked me a supposedly “safe” question about my family again, but the truth is that if that happened, it would make it harder for those of us with complicated and painful stories — which, to be honest, is most of us — to find each other. I wish we could just wear signs to identify ourselves, really. But, you know, that would be awkward.