That old chestnut about not knowing what you have until you lose it should be everybody’s family motto. Everyone complains about their families, fights with them, occasionally – in those dark childhood moments following some sort of parental injustice – dreams of meeting their “real parents” who will whisk them away from these terrible people. And yet, even when our families are awful, even unbearable, they’re ours. They’re a part of us, and no matter how strained the relationship, losing them is painful.
There’s a lot of that sentiment underlying Brenda Cullerton’s The Nearly Departed, the true tale of her highly dysfunctional Connecticut family and the pain that she nonetheless feels as her parents close in on death. Cullerton is a person who clearly had reason to wish that she were adopted. Her mother is a strange woman – to put it mildly – who gardens in her black underwear, and all but refuses to mourn the assassination of John F. Kennedy because “that man’s father was nothing but a philandering Irish bootlegger.”
Her father, whom Cullerton adored throughout much of her life, was an alcoholic and adulterer who developed an almost pathological hatred for her mother. But instead of getting a divorce, the father moved into a separate house on the same property as the mother.
Such a family certainly will yield troubled children and, indeed, Cullerton and her siblings seem deeply shaken by their upbringing. Yet Cullerton’s brother Geoffrey grew up to live in a tar-paper shack on the edge of his parents’ property, where he can help them but is still subject to their increasingly erratic behavior.
But despite her understandably tense relationships with them, Cullerton watches with, if not dread, something approaching wistfulness and deep sadness as her parents start to die. Her father suffers a stroke; her mother’s already fragile state becomes all the more tender and Cullerton is forced to reevaluate her feelings for both of them. The book is poignant, painful and true.
Though we cringe at Cullerton’s mother’s idiosyncrasies (such as embracing the family dog when he rips out the eyeball of a neighbor’s pet), we can see them reflected, to some degree, in our own families. We sympathize with Cullerton as she handles the sticky business of letting these very strange people slip away from her. Families are tough, but most people love their families no matter their faults. Everyone has their own family stories. This is Cullerton’s and she tells it well.