This story made me think about family. What constitutes family? The typical definition includes those to whom we are related by blood or bound by law. But, family is a much slipperier concept than that. It involves feelings and beliefs and is not easy to define.
In The Mill River Recluse, Mary McCallister grows up on a horse farm with only her father. Her mother died birthing her and she has no siblings or other family. An attack suffered when she was sixteen leaves her with what would now be called a social anxiety disorder. She finds she is comfortable only in the company of her father and the horses, and rarely leaves the farm.
In time her horizons do start to expand, slowly but surely. A young man who comes to buy a horse from her father takes a shine to her and manages over the course of many weeks to earn her trust. She becomes familiar with his immediate family and eventually the two marry, at which time she finds herself with certain social obligations.
While she hates the social aspects of being the wife of a prominent businessman, she manages to tolerate it for her husband’s sake. Added to the stress of these obligations is coping with the disapproval of her mother-in-law. The woman feels her only son, the scion of a wealthy family, has married beneath him and encourages the rest of the family to avoid her. Only her husband’s “Grandpop” truly accepts her and they become friends.
Mary seems to be settling into her life and is managing to control her social anxiety even though she cannot overcome it. Then tragedy strikes at her again. Her father, the single constant in her life, dies and she is thrown into the depths of a debilitating depression. This illness controls her for many months.
Mary’s husband is confused and irritated by his wife’s condition, but tries to be understanding. However, after months of trying to cope with his wife’s illness, the slow collapse of the family business, and the looming possibility of being drafted into the army during WWII, he snaps. He hits Mary in the head with a marble figurine during an argument, and drives off in a drunken rage, only to wrap his car around a tree, killing himself.
Hours later, Grandpop and Father O’Brien, the local priest, arrive at the house to inform Mary of her husband’s death. They find her, bloody and broken, on the bedroom floor.
Her husband’s attack leaves her disfigured and blind in one eye. It also intensifies her social anxiety to uncontrollable levels. Mary becomes the recluse of the title, having contact with no one but Grandpop and Father O’Brien.
The rest of the McCallister family shuns Mary. Her mother-in-law is convinced that Mary is the reason her only son is dead, and ensures the rest of the family avoids contact with her. Only Grandpop defies the woman.
Mary’s world has dwindled again. And, with Grandpop’s eventual death, Mary’s only human relationship is with Father O’Brien. For sixty years the good priest watches over her.
But the good Father does more than quietly keep Mary company. He tells her everything he can about the community outside her doors. He brings the people of Mill River alive for her. He helps her feel their joys and sorrows. And, in time, she begins to think of them as her family. She begins sending anonymous gifts to her Mill River family – birthday cards, help with utility bills, a new four wheel drive Jeep for the police department. And, at the end of her life, she entrusts her carefully invested fortune to the people of Mill River.
Family is something other than a simple biological or legal status. It is a feeling, an emotion, an intrinsic part of our psyche. With your family around you, it is not possible to be alone or lonely.