A House Divided

I remember the days when we were one big, happy family. We laughed, we talked, we ate and drank together once a year at family gatherings. All of us in a neutral lodge or inn or bed & breakfast somewhere. Sure, we had our differences. But we didn’t let those enter into the family sphere.

A few years ago that started to change. First, it was only one of my brothers. As hard as it was to understand what he was going through, he had all of our support. We whispered the word, when he was out of the room.

Gluten.

He’d found out he couldn’t eat the stuff. For a long time he’d been suffering and hadn’t known why. Now he had to change his diet. We patted his back while he ate millet pretzels and drank sorghum beer.

“There there,” we said. We took turns pointing out articles we’d read or seen about celiac, substitute foods we’d heard of. Support groups even. “This doesn’t have to diminish your quality of life!” We didn’t want him to feel …less, other.

(When he wasn’t around we talked about what a drag it was, but still, he had our support – 100%.)

Then it was our father. “Nope, can’t travel so easily,” he said. “I have a gluten allergy. I’m gluten-free now, and it’s hard to find things I can eat.”

Then a third family member flipped. Headaches, low-energy, general queasiness and ill health, all traced to a gluten allergy.

A fourth went over in sympathy. “Makes sense,” he said. “The others have never felt or looked better! I didn’t have a problem, but I’d rather decide than have gluten decide for me.”

This past weekend, when we got together in a remote corner of Pennsylvania, the gluten awareness was out of control. Remember the good times? When we’d just eat?

Yeah, we didn’t even talk about it! Except to say how good the food was, and to ask for more.

The g-word was so relentless at this gathering that someone came up with a drinking game: any time anyone says the word “gluten”, we all take a drink. (make sure there’s no hops, and that the wine hasn’t been fermented in an oak cask).

Our family is now divided: on one side (3 of my brothers and our father) the gluten-intolerant; on the other (me and my older brother & all the spouses, girlfriends and offspring) the gluten-aware, the gluten-alliant and the gluten-intolerant intolerant. My stepmother slightly passive-aggressively refers to the gluten-intolerant as “the Glutens” ( which Eric shortened to simply”The Glutes”).

Maybe this gluten business (swig of wine) is evolutionary. Maybe there was nothing left to talk about anymore, since blogs and Facebook and Twitter – I mean, we all know what everyone’s been doing from reading each other’s posts and feeds and photos and comments, so there’s not really any need to catch up on stuff. Is gluten the glue that now holds this family together at the same time it separates us, the wheat from the wheat-free?

We used to go out for one meal when we’d get together for a long family weekend. This year I researched the area where we were staying in a mountain lodge and found out about this amazing German restaurant where they served incredible…beer? noodles? schnitzel? It was too fraught – we ate in.

At the dinner table, The Glutens sat with the regular people. We all ate hamburgers and hot dogs (thank god there are no vegetarians…yet) but some of the table had special buns in plastic bags. The people with the buns in bags had this suffering look on their faces. I stuck with the classic wheat bun and was so busy enjoying my hamburger I kept forgetting to nod encouragingly at the gluten-impaired.

Feeling guilty and in a selfish attempt to convince myself that bread is evil for the more trivial purpose of losing weight, the next morning I sucked up to The Glutens.

“Is that bread good?” I asked Gluten Brother No. 1. “It really looks delicious!”

“Define good,” he said. “If you mean does it taste better than a piece of sheet rock, yes.”

(The Glutens take piety to a whole new level. They can’t help it – without the weight of wheat flour to bind them to the mortal earth, they truly are closer to heaven.)

Even looking at old family photos turned into a painful exercise – with every picture of childhood birthday cake a silent accusation was hurled at our dear departed mother: “You fed me poison!”

When talk turned to Sunday Mass and the availability of gluten-free communion wafers but only if you reserve in advance, I thought I must be losing my mind.

At last, out on the badminton court in the fresh air and sunshine with a birdy to thrash we were able to set aside our differences, and just be a family again.

And later, with guitars and voices joined in ragged harmony, we were truly united – Glutes and non-Glutes –  you couldn’t tell who was who.  It was beautiful.

Until the snack tray came out.

19 thoughts on “A House Divided

  1. Hal Davis

    “Glutes and non-Glutes”

    It’s been a while since I’ve thought of Dar Williams – THE CHRISTIANS and THE PAGANS. Glad you had a moment of unity.

  2. kp Attman

    You know, it’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed…in my travels in South America over the past twenty years I’ve never met people who are gluten intolerant. What’s the lesson there?

    1. amyrigby

      It may be the way wheat and flour are processed here? Lots of factors – I know I suffered with skin problems for years…doctors, books and articles always insisting diet wasn’t a factor but they seem to feel differently about it all now…

  3. Rosa

    This is a well written and interesting exploration of a universal problem of family life: we are one and yet we are never one. The human paradox pervades all existence, Our similarities and our need to survive unites us, but our individual selves and the existential imperative of the individual casts us asunder. If it were not gluten, it would be religion,, politics,, personal preference over some mundane manner, or anything. It is as if instead of saying Let there be light, God had said, Let there be drama. It is what we do. Or at least it is one of the things we do, especially, in the context of family.

    1. amyrigby

      Thank you Rosa – yes, drama is something my family has always done well, but thankfully with a fun, loving touch (generally speaking, of course there’ve been exceptions). Being able to laugh about it means it’s just new source material and everyone’s a good sport thank god.

  4. djmatticus

    We don’t have any gluten free family members to shift our group meals for, but we started with a sugar and fat free person, and then someone went vegetarian, and then someone else went vegetarian, and then family meals became a real struggle – especially when camping – how can you make a meal that pleases everyone when everyone needs something different to stay within their diet, when you have limited resources at your disposal and you are all going to share one meal…
    The answer eventually became – you can’t. And now our shared family camping time has been segmented apart so each group can do their own dinners. It keeps the peace while feeling wrong at the same time.

  5. amyrigby

    You sound like an adaptable bunch! Camping as a family group must be a challenge to begin with (I’m afraid my gang would never be hearty enough). Thanks for commenting, I enjoyed reading some of the fiction on your blog.

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