"Pack Codes and Tribal Laws"

I grew up in an old green house with a pitched roof that was located near the top of a steep tree-lined street. We played games in the road while one of us was on look-out. “Car!” When hearing this alert, we would scramble to the grass, waiting for the driver to pass, and then tumble back to resume whatever ramshackle competition we were playing.

This is just one of hundreds of stories my siblings and I have tucked away from our childhood. Each of us may have a different perspective. My recollections as the oldest are much different from my youngest brother’s, yet we hold a connection, a bond, a book of tales from our youth that is uniquely ours.

These stories wire us together, despite the arguments, the betrayals, the loss, the misunderstandings. Families are complicated. This is why so many novels center on them. From Thomas Wolfe to Pat Conroy, authors continue to write about these fragile units and how our families frame our psyches.

Families, especially our relationships with our siblings, remind me of spider webs, and how they are both delicate and a force of nature. They are spun into complicated designs with intricate details. They are mighty, yet with a flick of the hand be flung away across the yard. But…but the next morning they can reappear, bigger and more dazzling than the day before.

If you grew up in a family with brothers and/or sisters, you get this. We were the troops, with our parents the generals. Even in the worst of fights, we came together with a silent understanding of our loyalty.  We could be vicious to one another, but if someone else said or did something to hurt one of us, damn. Watch out. That tenuous filament became the strongest of steel beams.

What happens to these connections when one of us stumbles, loses our way, or even dies? What happens to the stories? Where do they go? Only our siblings know the real family secrets, the cracks, the nightmares that still keep us awake. Without them, where does the history go? Is it tucked away and stored in a dank closet or thrown out to the wind?

I have friends who have lost sisters and brothers, and when asked about it, they say it is like losing a limb. They still feel the presence, but are still shocked it is gone. Many of us say, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a brother or a sister,” but I think it is better phrased, “I can imagine.” I can imagine the loss, the emptiness, the ache. I can imagine and it breaks me into fragments. I can imagine life without my siblings and it is silent and gray.

Most families are grimy and convoluted and tangled up in our unreasonable expectations of what we want from one another, yet we desperately cling to the frayed rope that leads us to our crazy family tree. When we discover a branch has suddenly snapped, we gaze down with a dizziness we have never known. We teeter on the edge, not knowing whether to turn back or jump.

A good friend of mine just recently lost his brother, and I can imagine his grief. I know he is lost, but what he still possesses are the stories, the family lore that now only he truly understands. These anecdotes will be shared with others, stories most likely told amid raunchy laughter and salty tears. 

This is how our webs remain mighty, despite everything. Despite the silences, the harsh words, the broken promises, and the elusive definitions of family, we tell our stories, no matter how fractured or imperfect or disfigured they may appear. And with each anecdote, we disclose where we came from, what we really are, and who we wish to still become.

"We know one another's faults, virtues, catastrophes, mortifications, triumphs, rivalries, desires, and how long we can each hang by our hands to a bar. We have been banded together under pack codes and tribal laws." - Rose Macaulay

"Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk." - Susan Scarf Merrell

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Jenny Josephine Fisher Warner, and her sister, Edith Fisher Ludwig. I know nothing of their “pack codes and tribal laws,” but I’m sure they were fierce. I see my sons’ faces in these young girls. The power of family...and genetics.

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Jenny Josephine Fisher Warner, and her sister, Edith Fisher Ludwig. I know nothing of their “pack codes and tribal laws,” but I’m sure they were fierce. I see my sons’ faces in these young girls. The power of family...and genetics.