Familial Travails

This weekend I hit the road for a big family reunion.  My grandmother’s maiden name was Dick.  Seriously.  Every year or so we all get together and have the “Big Dick Reunion.”  I want to make t-shirts one year, but fear that they might be indecent.

It was an interesting trip for me, because for the last few months the idea of “family” is something that I’ve been giving considerable thought to.  It’s interesting to me.  My immediate family is close, and I mean the whole bunch of us- aunts, uncles, and cousins.  We tend to keep up with each other and see each other on a regular basis.  We are there for each other, love each other and support each other.  We are not the Cleavers.  In full disclosure, we’ve spoken ill of each other, argued and disrespected each other, and during a particularly low point, some even tried to stop communicating with each other.  When the dust settles, though, we always end up coming back together and working toward overcoming our differences.  Sometimes, these differences are based on personalities, sometimes they are petty slights, and sometimes, it’s simply being too stubborn to admit that if someone is different or is living their life differently than you, that’s okay.  On one had we are clearly very close, yet at the same time there is so much that goes unsaid.

As I drove to the reunion, I began to wonder why we do this?  Why do we as a species hold so closely onto our familial bonds? Why are we willing to cover enormous distances for family? Why do some families hold on to each other, while others drift apart?  Why do some siblings talk incessantly while others break ties altogether?  Is all of this traditional behavior?  Is it better for some to hold on to family ties, and for other to let go?  Why?  Is  one better than the other?  If we love them or hate them, our families and our feelings about them define who we are.

A few years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to the concept of the “urban family.”  This is the idea that everyone has the family they are born into and the family they make.  The “made” family can include your spouse, but is more likely to be made up of your friends.  It is the urban family that really knows you; it knows who you are, and they love you.  Your birth family may love you, but may not be all that interested in getting to know you as a person, and is far more comfortable with the idea of who they think you are.  For example, sometimes families seem to identify members by the role the member has traditionally played. There’s the baby of the family, the bitch, the spoiled one, the crazy one, the alcoholic one, the rich one, the lazy one, divorced one, the one that ruins everything, the one that got away with everything, and the list goes on and on.  Sometimes families don’t let their members grow and evolve.  Sometimes that’s because if one member is allowed to change, then it may raise uncomfortable questions about how our own roles are changing and what  that does to the performance we have always given.  If the dominant figure in the family allows the family members to change, power may change its balance as well.

Families often seem to function like the plate spinners of black-and-white television variety shows.  The plates are all in motion at the same time, yet never really move from their spikes.  Each requires constant attention, and if one falls, the whole lot can come crashing down.  With so much attention needed, it would be easier for humanity to simply walk away.  Yet, we don’t.  We regroup, and come together.  We are forever optimistic that maybe this year at Thanksgiving, grandpa won’t say something horribly offensive, or Aunt Sophie won’t get drunk and start crying about how “no one ever loved her.”  In the United States, travel involving family is the single biggest reason people travel.

I was fortunate in that I was raised to believe in the utmost importance of family.   I’ve come to fundamentally believe this, and it is one of my core beliefs.  This has been both good and bad for me.  My family is a tremendous strength and resource for me, but I also constantly worry about disappointing them, often only leading to my own unhappiness.  I’ve heard it said that as you age, you see your elders less as wise sages, and more as flawed people.  For me, watching how my family and my friends’ families have tried to live with this absolute, has been eye opening as an adult.  I have friends who rarely talk to their parents.  Months pass between conversations.  Even in my own family I’ve seen people struggle with challenges to this in areas ranging from prejudices to social stigmas, to simply being embarrassed that they have somehow let the rest of the family down.  My family taught me the importance of family, but Oprah has taught me the importance of being honest with yourself and those around you, and creating an environment of meaningful dialogue.  Families would be even stronger if, when they traveled to be together, were really honest and respectful with each other when they got there.

The Kennedy family has often reflected on the closeness of their brood, by pointing out that when you are on your deathbed, you will be lucky if you can use all five of your fingers on your hand to count the number of lifelong friends that will be there, but your family, well, that’s who will be with you from the beginning to the end.  To me, that is why people are so willing to travel for family.  They put up with all the drama, the frustrations, the pain, and the heartaches, because they know, that in the end, it’s family that should stand by you.  It doesn’t always work out that way, and sometimes it’s best if it doesn’t, but it should.

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One Comment on “Familial Travails”

  1. May 2, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    A rolling stone is worth two in the bush, thanks to this arletci.

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