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Leo Tolstoy and family

This is a musing prompted by the story I read recently of the suicide of Tiffany Sedaris, youngest sister of David Sedaris and of Amy Sedaris, both notable writers and generally funny people.

Here is an article about it.

Here is a piece David wrote about it, not long after it happened.

I was struck by this story, speaking as someone who's had to cut off almost all contact with her siblings in the last few years. Not in a way that blames them for anything, or feels anything but sympathy for them and hopes that they can have good and happy lives. And not without trying hard for decades to find another way. But just in final recognition that it's all I can do, that it's for the best. Nobody wants to be without family.

David Sedaris in his piece asks, "How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else." He goes on to say "Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting."

I thought about this a lot over the last couple of days, as I've read more about her life and work. Tiffany obviously had a very different experience as part of that family than David did. I can't speak for more than that. I can't judge this family that is not my own.

But I wanted to state this fact that may be entirely obvious but yet I think is often missed: that different people can grow up in the exact same family and have very different experiences of it.

My Aunt Nonie was the youngest of five in her family. She and my mother, who was the next youngest, struggled to get along all their lives. There's a story that the four older siblings tell and laugh about, how Nonie once stormed out of the room after being teased mercilessly by her older siblings, saying "I've tooken all I can take!" then stopped to find a magazine to take to her room with her. They all thought this was so hilarious and I'm sure it was very cute of little Nonie, and endearing. But the grown woman Nonie once mildly remarked after that story was told for the umpteenth time, "I never really saw what was so funny about that story. After all, it centers around someone who has taken all they can take. Why is that so hilarious?" And indeed, I saw her point. Nonie moved across the country to California when I was very young, and we rarely saw her again until she was a grandmother, after her husband died, and she moved back here for a while.

In my family, like my mother's family, we didn't treat each other very well. Nonie and I talked about it some in the last decade of her life. We had independently come to that conclusion, and decided that's not how we wanted to be. I'm so glad I had a chance to be around Nonie more, to get to know her better, before she died. She died on my birthday a few years ago. I miss her. Mama slipped up and called me Nonie a lot, and called her by my name too sometimes, during that time when we were all together again here in town and visited each other frequently. I think Nonie and I were a lot alike. Both of us were programmers and science and math nerds. When I first hung out with her at her apartment here in town, I went through her lovely library and realized we cherished many of the same books. Whenever I visited her we would talk for hours about all the things that interested both of us. I still have many of her books that her daughters gave me. I love to read them and remember her brilliant mind and gentle heart.

So why would someone want to leave a family? Why would someone move seven or eight states away as soon as she possibly could, and rarely come back to visit? Maybe because it's not the same family for them as for other members. Maybe there's invisible privilege or acceptance and love there that some have but not others. I think about James Baldwin leaving the US to go live and write in Paris. Why would anyone want to leave this great country of ours, this America, we might well ask? Well, maybe it's because America isn't the same for everyone who lives here. Invisibly, maybe, but pervasively not at all the same.

I pray blessings on David, Amy, and all the Sedaris family. May they be comforted in their grief.
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