Saturday, December 6, 2014

The meaning of family
Beyond a coat of arms: creating new symbols for family
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 2014

In artist Anna Church’s “Insignia” series  she arranges evocative found
 objects to illustrate the badges we create 
to identify ourselves. I
 decided to give her concept
 a try, and created a new badge-
crest for my family 
after scouring the house for just the right items.
My immediate family—all four of us—will be together at Christmas for the first time in three years. More than any other holiday, Christmas has been the catalyst for some of our family’s happiest times together. When my daughters were young, all I could think about was the joy of watching them tear open gifts on Christmas morning, and I shopped like crazy. This year, shopping seems so beside the point. Being together as a family is the sweetest gift of all.

Of course being part of a family is not always easy, and family holidays may, for some, heighten that feeling of not fitting in. A family is made up of distinct individuals, each with their own complex mixture of talents, needs and goals. Family members can sometimes get in the way of who we want to be as individuals. But family can also be a powerful means of support and encouragement simply by making us feel like we belong and matter.

I suppose a family too—as a group bonded by blood and shared experience—has its own distinct character and identity. A few years ago we received an unusual Christmas gift from my brother-in-law: a McBean/McBain clan crest-badge. It’s a small wooden plaque with tartan fabric, and a fierce gray cat holding a red shield surrounded by a belt bearing the family motto: “Touch not a catt bot a targe.” According to the Clan MacBean website, the old Scottish translates to “don’t mess with this cat unless you have a shield to protect yourself!”

According to the Clan MacBean website, the old
 Scottish on our clan crest-badge translates to
 “don’t mess with this cat unless you have a shield to
 protect yourself!”
Through the years, as my husband and I tackled home projects and repairs, we came up with our own family motto: “Nothing’s easy.” It was more a comment on our combined lack of handiness, than it was about life itself.  As my husband recently wrote, “After many years as a homeowner, I'm not any closer to fix-it man competence than I am to first violin at the New York Philharmonic.”

So now the Baine family has two mottos: one that’s fearless and warrior-like, and the other that’s inept and pathetic. Who is our family really?

In 2010 we arranged to have a family photo taken by a professional on Lincoln Beach. The resulting portrait is hanging in our hallway—a lovely Photoshopped version of the four of us with our arms around each other at sunset. Our hair is windblown, our teeth are white, our skin is perfect. Like the two family mottos, it’s kind of us, but it kind of isn’t us.

Anna Church’s “Insignia” series features this image
called "Union."  (
An art magazine published in Canada called “Uppercase,” recently featured artist Anna Church, who photographs artfully arranged found objects, creating images very reminiscent of a family crest or coat of arms. Her homage to marriage called “Union,” for example, features some traditional masculine objects on one side and some traditional feminine objects on the other, but it’s all tied together with vines, mirrored candle sconces and crossed wine goblets—all metaphors for the complex, identity-challenging unification that is coupledom. The nature of the bond that defines “family" is no less complex or challenging to pin down in a symbolic way, and Church’s intriguing concept makes me think I should create a new, more representative family crest-badge.

Way back in the 1999, on the eve of the new millennia, we bought a chiminea to gather the family around at night in our front yard. Our chiminea, strangely enough, looks a bit like the face of that fierce cat on the Baine clan crest-badge, with his mouth wide open, ready to devour our firewood. We built a brick platform to elevate the chiminea to sitting height, and inside the cube-shaped structure we buried a time capsule.

I wish I had a record of what we put in that plastic container (or was it glass?), but I only remember that all four of us contributed something personal. Our hope was that some day in the far distant future, someone else would own our house, demolish the platform, and find our buried treasure. I think we each selected symbolic items that would make us come alive, as individuals and as a family, in the minds of our future counterparts.

Donna Tartt's book "The Goldfinch"
features the famous painting of a
chained bird by Renaissance
artist Carel Fabritius, which I was
fortunate enough to see at the
De Young Museum in 2013.
I’ve always been a slow reader, but I recently finished the 800-page, Pulitzer winning novel, “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt—without a doubt the longest book I’ve ever tackled. Even though Stephen King in his New York Times review, likened Tartt’s storytelling to Dickens’, I still felt like I had missed a grander message when I finally finished the book.

The story is about a 13-year-old boy, Theo, who loses his beloved mother in a terrorist attack in a New York City museum, but survives himself, and rescues (and keeps) a priceless Renaissance painting of a chained pet bird, “The Goldfinch.” He ends up in Las Vegas with his alcoholic, poor-excuse-for-a-father, who also dies an untimely death; but Theo can’t let go of the painting. “It’s his prize” writes King, “his guilt and his burden, ‘this lonely little captive,’ ‘chained to his perch.’ Theo is also chained — not just to the painting, but to the memory of his mother and to the unwavering belief that in the end, come what may, art lifts us above ourselves.”

To keep your signpost lasting a long time, paint the boards
with white primer, use acrylic or latex paints, and an
 after-coat of clear acrylic spray. 
So, upon further consideration, I have finally come to think of “The Goldfinch” as being about the life force of art and family. King says that the book’s “brave theme” is that “art may addict, but art also saves us from ‘the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.’” In Theo’s case, the painting was a more dependable substitute for a family lost to happenstance and compulsion. Theo needed saving desperately because he no longer belonged anywhere and couldn’t count on anything. He didn’t have that constant safe haven of family.

In 2005, I gave each member of my family three redwood boards and asked them to paint the names of three places they would like to visit, and the distance between each place and us. The signpost we created still stands in our backyard, with all of our inscribed real and fictional destinations: Transylvania – 4714 miles; Temple of Athena – 8179 km; Emerald City – 3271 miles; Cayseeopia – 879,246 light-years. If I meant to encourage travel and exploration, or at least the creation of a symbol of potential and possibility, it was a very successful project, since next month both my daughters will be living on other continents.

But this Christmas, we will all be on the same continent, coming together in the place we four have always known as home.  I’m not sure what this means to my nonprovincial daughters, or if this house even feels like home to them anymore; but to me it means that our family has been restored. And being together as a family is the sweetest gift of all.

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