“I am thankful for my family,” a “no dah” assertion made often in this US holiday season. An assertion that sometimes rings cliché, hackneyed, trite. So I offer the following as an antidote to that vulnerability.
November 30, 1989, Donna Clare Rainwater shuffled off this mortal coil, checked out one week after thanksgiving, five days after her 52nd birthday, 18 years after giving birth to my youngest sister Marcy, and approximately 3 hours after I last saw her alive. It was a dramatic day, a tumultuous time, a reckoning of sorts. My mother’s death was a defining event forcing five young Rainwater’s (me and my four siblings) to confront some heavy shit about mortality, family, our emotionally stunted and clueless father, and each other. It was the end of my mother’s life on earth, the end of a certain innocence and familial definition. My mother was the glue that, in many ways, had kept us together. But when she died, something happened as a result, a rebirth of sorts, something sublimely good. Her death helped solidify the bonds between the five of us. I offer the most superficial explanation.
If I had a nickel for every time someone has said to me, with disbelief in their voice, “it’s amazing how close you all are” I would be a rich woman. Seriously. People are almost always amazed when I share that my best friends are my siblings. Many cite the turbulent relationships in their own families, explaining that they love their brothers or sisters but they are not close. I nod, smile, and shrug. Closeness with my sibs is all I know. They are my family. In every good definition of the word.
Juls is my Irish twin, which means she was born 11 months after I arrived. I was a crying, colicky first born to an exhausted young Donna, a practicing Irish Catholic who was boinking my dad without birth control 2 months after giving birth (she was also, by all apparent evidence, very fertile). I have zero recollection of my life before Juls…so we are in effect, twins, Irish or otherwise.
Juls and I are, at first glance, night and day. She has always been a skinny, bookish, relatively shy soul with a sober intellect and an aptitude for math and the analytical. I am not skinny, not shy, not bookish, and I failed college algebra, twice. In our youth Juls preferred reading her books and holing-up in her room alone singing along to Karen Carpenter albums while using her hairbrush as a microphone proxy. She followed the rules, got As, was in MGM, kept a low profile and saved her rebellions for later and was then much more sophisticated and surreptitious in their implementation. This all stood in stark contrast to my kinetic, brash, rebellious ways and grossly unsatisfactory grades. We were opposites. And though this might seem an equation for discord, that was not the case. We have ALWAYS been friends. In fact I call Juls my soul mate. She has been my confidant, counselor, supporter, my constant companion on this emotional, intellectual and spiritual journey through life. She and I have such a cultivated common language that previous considerations, contemplations, and histories need only the slightest allusion to be conjured. No one knows me better than Julie Ann Rainwater. And still, she always sees the good in me. That, to me, is family.
Then came the twins, James Clark and Lauri Jean, two little 3+ pounders born six weeks early. Suddenly there were four. In some ways these two were an analog to Juls and I. Jimmy was loud and nutty, Laurs was sweet and hardworking, and Juls and I took them under our wings accordingly. I was rough and tumble with little Jimbo and Laurs and Juls focused on the proper coordination of their respective Barbie’s outfits. We all, for the most part, got along fabulously (saving for some dramatic fights between Jimmy and I).
Then came the sweet surprise, Marcy Jane, the youngest, the little jock of all jocks, the quiet grounded one with a tough exterior and a mushy heart. Marcy entertained us with her youthful antics and later was left to deal with things on her own while the four of us ventured out into the world. She has always had a wisdom beyond her years. And then there were five. Five little Rainwaters and it seems like only minutes passed and then we were all peers. And as we all got older, we ended up going to the same parties and drinking the same cheap kegger beer and eating SuperMex and going to the beach the morning after.
That fateful November in 1989 when our mom up and died, something began to happened, something new was cemented. Of course we all dealt with things in our own way…diving into our preferred flavors of distraction. But we also talked. We shared. We grilled our sister Marcy about the details of the day as she was with my mother when she had the heart attack. We went over and over in detail everyone’s experience of finding out, of going to the hospital, of getting the call. We pondered the unbelievable, the inconceivable, the impossibility of it all. We contemplated life without Donna and we did it openly and often. We cried together, drank together, sat through that Catholic mass funeral together, and together we ate the ten frozen lasagnas delivered by friends and neighbors. And a few weeks later, together we bore the pain of that first Christmas and New Years without the woman who had always made those days special for us all. We were, at that young age, forced to deal with something that most of our friends could not even conceive of…suddenly the value of our relationships to each other came into clearer focus, the fragility of life was no longer conceptual but the nasty fact of one less plate at the Christmas dinner table.
Through the years it has only gotten better, even with all the distractions and girlfriends and boyfriends and dramas. We have continued to become better friends, better siblings, better family to each other. When one of us has stumbled, the phone calls and conversations among the others have been filled with ideas for how to help, how to console, how to cheer up. If money was needed, money was collected. If a pep-talk was needed, four were given. If a ride, a plane ticket, or a birth coach were needed, all were arranged. Never has the response to a challenge been derision or harsh judgment. Not to my knowledge. Not ever. Every conversation, every strategy, every potential intervention has been fueled by caring, love and respect. We truly truly wish the best for each other. We truly are there for one another.
It’s been 20 years this November since our mother died. We are now all growed up and have added John, Ron and Jon and five youngin’s to the clan. And even though I am for the third year in a row skipping off to Central America for Christmas and New Years, I think I have only missed one family Thanksgiving dinner in the 20 years since my mother’s death. Most years we gather at Laur’s house where we laugh and laugh and drink and play stupid games and laugh some more. Our histories are so intermingled, our humor so relentless, our common language so present and enduring, our loyalty so proven again and again, there is no denying that we are, by every good definition, family. And so I say again, not only in this US holiday season, but every single day, I am thankful for my siblings, my best friends, my family.
And lastly, mom, wherever you are, thanks for having us, raising us, and instilling something good in us that has endured and is being passed to the next generation. This Thanksgiving there will be a plate set at the table in your honor. And we will speak of you to those youngin’s and partners who never got the chance to meet you. You will never be forgotten.
NOTE: My family has grown to include more than my siblings, John, Ron, and Jon, and the five new youngin's, but I have chosen to focus on my mom and bio-sibs here. I am also TRULY grateful, everyday, for my larger chosen family.