Do you remember the game called Six Degrees of Separation? Wikipedia defines it as “the idea that, if a person is one step away from each person they know and two steps away from each person who is known by one of the people they know, then everyone is no more than six ‘steps’ away from each person on Earth.”
It started out as a fun way of connecting celebrities. “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” says that every actor is linked to each other through his or her film roles. (Bacon, to his credit, started a charity based on the idea.) The whole point is that it’s a small world, and we’re all connected.
While this is fun on paper, it doesn’t necessarily work in any useful way. If I’m lucky enough to spy Robert Redford, one of my early crushes, on the street and shout to him, “Hey, we’re closer than you think!” he is likely to a) ignore me, b), sprint away, or 3) call the cops. (I did actually speak to Redford once, but that’s a story for another time, and not all that interesting.)
Still, it’s a nice thought. You never know when a famous person is going to come into your life. This happened to me once in a very unexpected way. But first I have to tell you a little bit about my first husband’s family.
I came from a small family, but this man had two brothers and a sister. They all lived so far away from each other, we rarely saw them. It seemed like the opposite of the small world theory, as these people appeared to be trying to put as much distance as they could between each other.
Sometimes there are innocent reasons for such dispersals in families. Jobs beckon, opportunity knocks, and it isn’t always next door. Other times, it’s a sign of something darker. In their case, I lay it at the feet of my mother-in-law, an alcoholic extraordinaire whom no one could bear to be around for long. (My father-in-law was no cupcake, either.)
That’s my reasoning, anyway. I think that’s why the older brother, who is not an alcoholic, moved to Canada. I think that’s why the younger brother, who is not an alcoholic, moved to California. And I think that’s why the daughter, who is not an alcoholic, moved to Puerto Rico.
As for me and my husband, we moved to Colorado. He had gone there already to take a job near his only aunt and uncle. His father was an only child, and his mother had just one sister. Nothing wrong with that, but this aunt was an alcoholic, too. For the longest time, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that we had some relatives nearby, complete with three nieces, and it was a comfort, since we were so far from my own family.
After things got bad and we divorced and I started my life over again in Iowa, I figured I would never see any of those people again. My kids, I thought, would be lucky to get even a birthday or Christmas card, and those were indeed few and far between. Blood is thicker than water, I guess, though the way I saw it, they were that family’s grandchildren and cousins just as much as the others. But they had the taint of me, the awful woman who ruined their middle son’s life.
Six years after the divorce was final, I got a phone call that would force us back to that family, at least momentarily. My kids’ father had died. Like his mother, he was an alcoholic. He died in his sleep, at the home of his aunt and uncle, who had moved back to Iowa. A funeral was planned in Iowa City, and even though my kids were over 18, there was no way I was letting them go alone.
So we went, and it was about as bad as you can imagine. We sat around a room at the funeral home, where a priest may or may not have said some words; I honestly can’t remember. Then some of them got up and spoke. The moment that blew me away was when Jennifer, the oldest cousin, talked about how much she loved C. and how vividly she remembered the day we showed up on his motorcycle, fresh from our first ride together in the mountains.
Jennifer and I got to know each other a little that afternoon, talking and eating after the funeral. Her mother said we looked alike, and we agreed. It turned out we both wrote poetry, too. Not long after, we started corresponding by email, making plans to get together if I ever came back to Colorado for a visit.
Then she told me who her father-in-law was: Hunter S. Thompson, the “gonzo” journalist who chronicled the Hell’s Angels and Las Vegas and the insanity of American politics. He was big-time famous. Johnny Depp played him in the movie “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” after all.
I never met Juan, Jennifer’s husband and Hunter’s only child. Jennifer’s emails dropped off after awhile and then stopped altogether. Maybe Hunter’s famous paranoia rubbed off on her; I’ll never know. When he killed himself in February 2005, I sent a note to Jennifer’s mother, who said she would pass it along. Jen’s own father died soon after, and her mom moved to Colorado and we lost touch, too.
I watched “Gonzo,” the documentary about Hunter’s life, the other day. In the film, this is what Juan has to say about the day his father put a gun to his head: “It was a sunny afternoon in winter; it was just a very peaceful time. His family was there and he decided, okay, this was a good time to go out. It sounds kind of sappy, but it was a warm family moment.”
Sounds weird, but not for the son of somebody like Hunter S. Thompson. Still, I wish I could talk to Juan and Jennifer about all they’ve been through. Juan was only on screen for a few moments, but it was good to see him at last. We remain two degrees apart. Close enough for me to care about him, but not, I’m afraid, close enough to be family.