I should have gone to the shooting range.
This is my thought as I lounge on the microfiber couch of Dad’s new house in Glenview, Illinois. Currently, Mom, Dad, and my brother, Josh, are en route to Maxon Shooter’s Supplies and Indoor Range, primed to fire through targets hung 21 feet away from their hopefully steady hands. As the youngest child, only girl, and self-proclaimed “brat” of the family, I had refused to go and opted instead for a solitary hour spent reclining on the couch with Dad’s old yellow Lab.
But the guns are just a distraction. We are here for “The Family Meeting.” Back in April, Dad had called to explain that he needed both of his children — Josh and myself — to come home for this so-called family meeting.
“And to what family are you referring?” I responded with disdain.
“Our family,” said Dad. “Your mother and I are calling a meeting.”
“Are Mommy and Daddy getting back together?” I asked, the snarky words spilling out almost automatically. Like I said: I’m a brat.
My parents have been separated for 28 years and divorced for 22. The process left them embattled for over five years — disputing custody and finances — and while I don’t know all of what happened between them, I know more than I should. We have not all lived under the same roof since 1989 in Phoenix, when on yet another hot and dry day, my family evaporated. The divorce turned my relatively uneventful life into that of a foot soldier — I went where I was told to go, I always kept my essentials packed and easily mobile, and I infiltrated both enemy camps. I kept secrets and dug for information. I pretended to be doing my homework while I intently listened to phone calls. I worked hard to ensure my parents never felt like I was choosing between them, an act I can still perform perfectly today.
“You and Mom … have spoken?” I asked my dad, trying only mildly to hide my disgust. I could count on one hand the number of times my parents had been together in the same room since 1989.
“We’ve had lunch a few times.”
“Just come home and we’ll tell you,” Dad said.
I surprised even myself with my response, but then I decided to dig in my heels. Now that I was 33 years old, an adult and relatively well-adjusted, now my parents were calling a family meeting? Not without a fight.
“No,” I reiterated. “I can’t afford the shrink this will require.”
My dad laughed into the receiver but then gave me the date and the details, anyway. For him, the matter was settled. I hung up and penciled “Family Meeting” into my planner for August 2. Then I entered “Family Meeting” into my digital calendar, paused when it asked for a timeframe, and marked it as an all-day event.
The first time I shot a gun was also my last: the previous April, in celebration of my father’s 70th birthday. Dad was in a phase of “personal work,” his response to a series of life-changing circumstances that had caused him to re-examine everything. My 70-year-old father, previously known to me as the most stubborn and guarded man I knew, now meditated daily. At one particularly introspective point in the past year, he had admitted that he didn’t actually know what made him happy.
“No one ever asked me,” he said.
One of the few things that did make Dad happy, it seemed, was shooting guns — a long-held truth he’d revealed carefully to his fervently anti-gun only daughter in recent years. Trying to reward his growth and mirror his newfound open-mindedness, I reluctantly agreed to join him, my brother, and my cousin at the shooting range near my aunt’s house, where we had gathered for the festivities.
I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb on the north shore of Chicago, away from the buck-hunting woods, the rifle-riddled South, the violent streets of urban impoverished neighborhoods, and war-torn areas beyond. Whether you consider growing up suburban fortunate or not, I grew up sheltered and safe from gun violence and death, and for that I feel lucky.
Still, I was surprised at my heart’s instinctive hammering the moment the gun — an unloaded Sig Sauer P226 pistol — was placed on the counter before me. I felt wholly unprepared for the weight of it in my hand. After a hefty safety lecture, my dad, filled with what I can only assume was pride mixed with the undiluted joy of having won a longstanding argument, stood behind me, guiding my arms straight, telling me to relax.
So few opportunities exist for us as adults to actually learn a new skill from our parents. If we were lucky, they long ago taught us how to play catch and how to tie our shoes and how to ride a bike. They may have devoted hours of diligent attention to make sure we knew how to swim and how to pump our legs on the swings and how to carve a Halloween pumpkin. Most of the lessons we learn as adults are not physical in nature — our motor skills have pretty much sorted themselves out by now. Oddly, in this moment — holding a heavy firearm with my dad close behind me — I felt like a kid again. I feared the unknown: the kickback, the noise, and the unlikely but still slight chance that I might shoot off a limb or blind my brother. I feared the unrelenting power in my hands. I knew that if I didn’t go through with the experience, though, I would always wonder what it feels like to shoot a gun. So, I fired.
And I fired. And again. Round after round I shot up my target. And I didn’t hate it. In fact, I took pride in hitting three bulls-eyes in my first turn. Afterward, we got into the car and I felt alive with an energy that comes from being in such close proximity to the potential for death.
“How was it?” my dad asked, his eyes locked on mine expectantly in the rearview mirror. It was exhilarating, I wanted to say.
But I didn’t.
“It was okay,” I responded blandly, “but I doubt I’d ever do it again.” I stared out the window. “Happy Birthday, Dad.”
When my family returns from their outing, I’m still on the couch, but in a slightly less contrarian mood. My mom, who has been telling me for years that she wants to try shooting a gun, relays to me just how much she hated the experience — an outcome I could have predicted.
And now here we are. Mom and Dad sit in leather-backed chairs while my brother and I settle on the couch; I pull a decorative pillow over my lap, my natural response to discomfort.
“Your mother and I have met a few times,” Dad begins, “and we’ve decided to try to work on having a better relationship and finding some way of moving on from all the hurt and pain we’ve caused you two in the past.” So begins The Family Meeting.
It goes for some time, an hour maybe. My mom talks about her struggle to move on, my brother supports our parents’ effort to try to remedy things, my dad sits attentively and accepts fault, a miracle for a man whose default — like mine — is to cringe at ever being wrong. I listen and, contrary to my behavior in every other part of my life, I stay silent.
Several times I feel hot tears threaten and I try to distract myself. Finally, I’m the only one who hasn’t said anything; it’s clear that I am expected to speak.
“I think it’s great that you want to try to fix your relationship after almost 30 years,” I say. “And I guess my feeling is, actions speak louder than words. I’ll believe it when I see it.” I hate who I become with my family: unwilling, closed off, unable to show them an ounce of vulnerability, or openness, or it seems, forgiveness. I’m angry, I realize the longer I sit on the couch; I’m angry about this meeting and I don’t know why.
I grew up in the era of rampant divorce — the late ’80s through the ’90s. By then everyone’s parents were splitting up. And by high school a few years later, those whose parents had stayed together were the lucky outliers. At some point, having a “broken home” became as common as getting your wisdom teeth pulled out. Divorce became, through sheer frequency, somehow unimportant to talk about.
Because my parents were separated by the time I turned six, I grew up unable to imagine them ever being in love. At school and with peers, I learned fast that to admit something as common as divorce was making me sad would brand me uncool, like still being afraid of the dark at 12 (which I had been) or still sleeping with a stuffed animal through junior high (which I had done). After all, people in the world had real problems.
By high school, I’d grown a healthy, thick, sarcastic skin that proved I absolutely could not care less that my parents don’t love each other.
“Have you met my parents?” I would joke. “The fact that they were ever married is ridiculous.” I’d relay the story I’d heard, that my mom was a demonstrator at the ’68 Democratic National Convention, while the National Guard sent Dad in to quell the protests.
“He likely teargassed her,” I’d say. “Now there’s a love story.” I had my cynical routine down to a fine art. By then my line was firm: I don’t believe in marriage. It was to me a VHS player in a Netflix world: antiquated and impractical.
Throughout The Family Meeting I don’t say much, but I do my best to participate. Agreements are made about practical steps for communication. Mom and Dad make a plan to meet the next weekend. I roll my eyes but am immediately relieved to realize no one has seen me.
Now, a truly remarkable thing happens: we prepare to sit down to dinner. Dad opens the screen door to the whir of cicadas and late summer’s sticky evening heat. He spends the next half hour dashing between the kitchen and the patio as meat-rich smoke escapes the grill. This part I know well — my dad becomes methodical, animated, and alive when he has occasion to make his “family-famous” barbecue ribs. But tonight, on one of his trips back from the kitchen — clearly in “entertaining” mode and out of his element — he brings out a store-bought, pre-sliced cheese tray and a bottle of wine.
I open and pour the wine. Everyone else chats, seemingly at ease with one another; I am left to chase behind such immediate comfort. We continue to talk in the humid evening as the dog sprawls in the grass. The grill smells familiar.
With giant bowls of Dad’s gazpacho, we each sit down to ribs coated in his secret barbecue sauce (I believe I forfeited the right to the recipe when I announced my vegetarianism years ago.) Dad places two ribs on Mom’s plate, perhaps remembering her propensity to “just pick” at food and never eat a full meal. It’s a totally normal dinner — mother father sister brother — except that it is foreign and unprecedented. I search my memory for a similar moment for which I can feel nostalgic; I come up blank.
As I silently eat my grilled baked potato and sad-looking veggie burger, I look at my family, the people I love and often loathe the most in the world and suddenly realize something so simple, it catches my breath: my life would have been easier if my parents had stayed together.
Years of being pulled in two directions had, in fact, been damaging. For the first time, ever, I allow myself to feel sad between bites — sad that this wasn’t my life growing up. My life would have been easier, I say over and over in my head. While I’m glad that my parents found greater happiness apart, I had never actually considered my own loss in the mess of it all. Divorce was prevalent, yes, but a common trauma is still a trauma — still painful, personal, and real. I was placed into the machine of a society that accepts without grieving; I lived there for a long time.
I don’t believe in marriage has been my line for so long, I can’t even remember when I started saying it. I realize now what I’ve really been saying: I’m afraid. I’m afraid of marriage because I was raised with no good models, and I’m afraid I’ll fail. I’m afraid I’ll get divorced and I’m even more afraid that I’ll do it without integrity. I’m afraid to be known so wholly by someone, to expose all my dark, ugly corners. And, mostly, I’m afraid to have children who I could one day gather for a Family Meeting.
Sitting on the patio with my parents and my brother and the dog and the unmistakable lush pulse of a long late-summer evening, everything feels momentarily just as it always should have been. Mom drinks her wine and compliments Dad’s cooking. Josh and I make sarcastic jokes at the expense of our parents, our favorite hobby. When the sun relents completely, we empty the second bottle of wine and watch the fireflies invade the lawn. For just a few moments, no one has anywhere else to be.
In past, whenever I’ve heard the slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” I’ve immediately dismissed it as the flawed reasoning of Second Amendment zealots. So, it surprised me when the words shot into my head as I helped clear the table that night. Dinner had ended and we were all still speaking to one another; no one was crying and we had even managed to laugh together. And so, what if guns are a bit like marriage? What if (shudder) marriage itself is not the problem as I’d so thoroughly convinced myself? What if marriage is a vessel for whatever we pour into it? What if the individuals in the marriage shape whether the union is sturdy or delicate, safe or destructive? I would have to revise my entire thesis on the subject.
My parents did the best they could. Their best was terrible, but I do believe they had tried. They came of age during the ’50s and ’60s, when a wedding was scheduled into life like a dental visit.” My parents did the best they could; I tell myself this frequently and I told myself again that night. Their vessel was small and fragile and opaque.
The first time I had held a gun, I felt as though I had failed myself. This mythic thing, this cultural mainstay, felt so heavy and awkward and terrifying in my hand. I had vowed never to touch one, but there I was with my palm around its grip. Now I have my lone target, with its 22 bullet holes, taped inside my closet. I’m not sure why I chose to bring it home, but I think I know why I keep it, hidden.
I’m glad that I still don’t know everything about myself, and I likely owe that to my parents. We don’t live in a static world; maybe it’s okay to be afraid of shooting the gun, then to shoot the gun anyway, and even to like it. It’s okay — after all that — to still believe guns have no place in this world. Maybe it’s okay to peer in the darkness, okay to shine a bright light on what’s broken and vulnerable, okay even to need a Family Meeting. Maybe it’s okay to let down my guard, as I should have done on my Dad’s birthday — as I should more often be willing to do — okay to meet his eyes in the rearview mirror and say what I really mean, “That was exhilarating. Maybe we can try it again.”
JESSICA SERVER is a published poet, nonfiction writer, and freelance journalist living in Minnesota. Her work has been featured by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, TABLE magazine, Best American Poetry (blog), The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook, “Sever the Braid,” was published in 2013 by Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA from Chatham University and currently teaches at Minnesota State University (Mankato).