As I read Ann Tyler’s newest novel Spool of Blue Thread, I am struck by the themes that run through my own life- the family ties that bind, and sometimes strive to smother us.
Tyler’s Whitshank family is painstakingly real. As book reviewer, Steve Novak writes, “A test of good writers is their ability to construct characters in a story in such a way that they appear real to us. In our mind’s eye we can see them, all the way down to the way they laugh and the way that their shoes are untied. Even more, we see their problems because they are problems that we have had ourselves.”
I can relate, now in middle age more than ever. When you grow up in a family of three or more, you take on a role, and birth order does not necessarily determine your role in the family unit. I was one of six children. I have described myself as third from the top, oldest girl. I have some of the traits of a middle child ( I was introverted, quiet and often felt invisible surrounded by boisterous older brothers, and the babies.) I was also the oldest female and had a lot of responsibility thrust on me at a young age – think John Boy Walton in the Homecoming, being charged with keeping the younger ones in line.
As we grew up, became adults, married, and had kids, all of my siblings and I held the belief that we were different because we were the “grown-ups.” But changes in our lives proved otherwise. When faced with crisis, everyone seemed to revert to their assigned roles- or did we push each person back into their box?
I’ve changed over the course of the last ten years. I don’t rush in to offer solutions, or play the peacemaker. I’ve removed myself from my previous role as the responsible older one. It baffles some family members, but a few understand because they’ve changed too.
It causes friction and frustration for those who find it easier to keep us in our assigned seats.
It is inevitable that at least one family member, if not more, decide they don’t want to be a part of this version anymore. The other members act offended and refuse to accept the newer version of yourself. Family members may argue, or use guilt to try and make you behave. This can cause the changed person to give up and continue in the old role or force them to create distance to save their own sanity.
Tyler’s book reminds me that families have varying degrees of dysfunction behind closed doors. Change and growth take honest conversation, and sincere desire to leave those childhood role assignments in the past.