THE HUMAN FAMILY. It's a good phrase, reminding us not only that we come from the same beginning and are headed toward the same conclusion, but that in the meantime our lives are elaborately and inescapably linked. A famine in one part of the world affects people in all parts of the world. An assassination in Dallas or Sarajevo affects everybody. No one is an island. It is well worth remembering.

But families have a way of being islands notwithstanding—the Flanagans as distinct from the Schwartzes and the Schwartzes never to be confused with the Cherbonneaus or the Riondas. You think of a row of houses on a street. The same drama is going on in all of them—the human drama—but in each of them a unique drama is also going on. Though the wood walls are so thin you can hear a baby's cry through them, they are solid enough to keep out the world. If in the Schwartzes' house the baby dies—or grows up and gets married by the rambler roses in the backyard—all the other families on the street rally round and do what they can. But it is in the Schwartzes' house alone that what happens happens fully. With the best will in the world, nobody on the outside can know the richness and mystery of it, the foreshadowings of it deep in the past, the reverberations of it far in the future. With the best will in the world, nobody on the inside can make it known.

It is not so much that things happen in a family as it is that the family is the things that happen in it. The family is continually becoming what becomes of it. It is every christening and every commencement, every falling in love, every fight, every departure and return. It is the moment at breakfast when for no apparent reason somebody gets up and leaves the table. It is the sound of the phone ringing in the middle of the night or the lying awake hours waiting for it to ring. It is the waves pounding the boardwalk to pieces and the undercurrents so deep beneath the surface that you're hardly aware of them.

A family is a web so delicately woven that it takes almost nothing to set the whole thing shuddering or even to tear it to pieces. Yet the thread it's woven of is as strong as anything on earth. Sixty years after his father's death, the old man can't bring himself to remember it, or to stop remembering. Even when the twenty-year-old daughter runs out and never comes back, she can hear the raised voices from downstairs as she's going to sleep a thousand miles away, and every year when the old birthdays or death days come by, she marks each of them as surely as she marks that the sun has gone under a cloud or the moon risen.

It is within the fragile yet formidable walls of your own family that you learn, or do not learn, what the phrase human family means.

-Originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words

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