Family is the Worst…and the Best!
We recently saw a show at the Barter Theater, “Over the River and Through the Woods.” It was funny. It was reflective. It was a story of family. “Sometimes they are related to us by blood, sometimes by circumstance…. They are made of people whose mere presence can bring us joy – and sometimes exasperation.” It was very poignant.
Although the specifics do not necessarily mirror my own experiences, I could relate to so much of it. Ours was a vagabond military family. We rarely saw our relatives. I did not know my grandparents; the last one died when I was in elementary school, and we saw her very rarely. I think I only met one uncle. The other side of the family lived in California, and they were remote because my father was a soldier in Vietnam. Politics drove a wedge.
My story is replete with examples of individual decisions colored by the influence of family. After being drafted into the Army Air Corps in the aftermath of WW II, my father had an opportunity to attend West Point. He declined because he didn’t feel he could make the commitment after his own father died. My mother left Smith College before she graduated in order to accompany her family to the Orient where her father (an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers) was assigned during the reconstruction of Japan. I left the military in part because I did not want my children to face the rootless upbringing I endured. I wanted them to know there was a place they “belonged” when the harsh vagaries of the world assaulted them. Our path is like a tree, constantly branching, with each stem a choice of direction. Ultimately, half the tree (the roads not taken) wither and die leaving us with only the path we chose. Often those paths are defined by the decision to chose family over “something” else (or not).
Perhaps the most fundamental thread that defines a family is that of parent to child: an intergenerational function in which control initially emanates from one side (downward). That power can be benign or overbearing. In our family, the “hard power” flowed from my father, the softer from my mother (although she could wield the “spanking spoon” with ruthless efficiency).
Ultimately, family dynamics mature. Parents grow older while children “grow up” (at least until it is their time at the top of the hierarchy). It seems that my relationship with my father “mellowed,” especially when grand kids appeared. He became the doting (grand) parent. I wish he had been that way when I was young. I was happy that my own children got to experience that side of him.
Family traditions build over time. Every summer my father rented a beach house along the Carolina shore. The house grew with an ever-expanding set of grandkids. It was often riotous. The “adult” children reverted to adolescence, splashing, and throwing each other into the pool. Spontaneous, but maybe not the best example for the kids.
Many stories morphed into family lore, like the time my sister broke her nose on a renegade kayak. Under a general anesthetic (of Margaritas), my brother’s wife (a doctor) had to set her nose (twice) because she refused to go to the emergency room. This event that had become something of a tradition. Every trip someone in her family ended up in the ER. One of my favorite pictures from that time is of my parents and a pack of “toe-head” grandkids sitting on the front steps.
From the time I landed in the TriCities, we made the trek up the interstate to DC every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everyone jammed into my parent’s house on top of each other. Squabbles were inevitable. One breakfast, I stepped into the dining room only to find one of my nephews crawling across the table devouring the platter of bacon. I yelled at my sister about her heathen kids (he became a college football player, so I guess he needed it).
The era of family gatherings was all too brief. Sadly, mom and dad both passed in their early 70s. The return “home” for the holidays also died with them. I am sorry that my kids did not get to know them better, but we have many happy memories. With their passing, I had to become an adult. There are still times I wish I could call up my father to ask his advice, even though I generally rebelled when he gave it to me unsolicited (especially when he was right).
One of my sisters picked up the mantel of matriarch (at least for Thanksgiving). The assembled masses would invade her house, with the commensurate chaos ensuing. Changes in personal relationships have altered that. My kids still go there with their mother; I miss them immensely during that holiday. Many circumstances of are of our own making, so it is a bit disingenuous to bemoan the inevitable consequences. I know it has put stress on the kids, and I have had to temper my own expectations. I have come to accept that things will never be the way they were. Nothing in life remains the same, still there is something of a sadness for what (in retrospect) seems a simpler time.
However, the breakdown of relationships also rekindles old connections and generates new ones. My brother has now become a neighbor (well almost). He purchased a piece of property not far from our house and he spends quite a bit time in the area (his “happy place”…and I am happy to have him around). We have not been this close since we were kids (although I now enjoy his company without the beatings my big brother would inflict). I never would have guessed this would happen and the genesis was the difficulties we each faced. God has truly blessed us both.
The challenge of finding time to gather the family together has also become harder as my own children age. The environment changes so rapidly that it has been hard to adapt: leaving for college, jobs with limited time off, new towns with the increased distances, and new relationships with the commitments they entail. It is heartwarming to see them appear and bittersweet to say goodbye. They have their own futures to live, but I still want to keep hold of something more than memories.
We have tried to develop new family traditions (spring ski trips or going to the Army-Navy game), but even these morph. It is now rare that everyone can make it at the same time. A new grand baby has made the gatherings more joyous even as it compounds the challenges (alas, I’m not the only grandparent with a desire to see the grandson).
Love. Hate. Joy. Sadness. Gain. Loss. Families have it all. The good comes with the bad. Ultimately, it is these relationships that most significantly shape who we have become. We leave precious little to the world; the next generation of our family is by far the most significant.