Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Skeletal expectations

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. ~ George Bernard Shaw

Warning: if you simply love holidays, don't read this. I don't want to ruin your joy with my pessimistic realism.

It’s that time of year again, the dreaded, ever-longer holiday season, when the media overflows with unrealistic images of always loving families happily sharing generations-old traditions, mounds of (largely unwanted and unnecessary) gifts, and food. Lots of food.

I know I risk being labeled a Scrooge when I say it’s been many years since I’ve approached the holidays with anything remotely resembling joyful anticipation. The reasons for that are myriad, and they are often exacerbated by the demand for meticulously choreographed visits to several far-flung locations for too many dinners, all on the same tenuously hallowed occasion.

This year I’m trying to focus more on the intangibles, to reclaim some level of contentment by concentrating on family. As long as that term involves Hubby and our two children with their respective partners, we’re fine. Add in those special friends who have been with us through good times and bad and our world is complete.

The problem is those celebrations of oft-disputed origin force me to realize my reality doesn’t begin to jive with societal hype. The definition of “nuclear family” doesn’t coincide with my world. When the holidays arrive, “family” takes on a wider meaning that goes largely unnoticed throughout the year, although that is not by our choice. We have parents in three different towns hundreds of miles apart, siblings clustered in three states, and cousins we haven’t seen since our shared grandparents’ funerals. Yet we’re expected to rejoice in cramming too many people into a perfectly adequate but modest home to hear about the latest nephew’s first tooth.

My sisters and I have never been close, as much due to the age difference (five and seven years) as to my role as in loco parentis in their lives from far too early. When I see friends making vacation plans with their sisters, looking to those siblings before friends and sometimes spouse, I wonder how it feels to have such a relationship. And my brothers, even the one I spent six years in the same household with, are little more than familiar strangers.

Hollywood and Hallmark aside, I’ve learned over the years family is not necessarily defined by blood. My stance earned me a scolding from a cousin when she felt the need to remind me blood is always there for you, no matter what. Maybe, maybe not. But I didn’t argue. She’s family.

And that’s part of the problem. I/we don’t argue, or when we do, it’s to score points and puff up our own self-importance rather than resolve problems or share thought-provoking ideas. Because “blood is always there,” some relatives disregard notions of respect and civility, saying and often doing things that would never pass muster in polite society. Political and religious jibes, no matter how outrageous or hurtful, are fair game. How unfair, and how sad.

Because on the flip side, the elephant in the living room which we all ignore are the real issues that divide us, misunderstandings large and small that prevent us from truly sharing those Norman Rockwell moments. If we keep sweeping things under the rug, maybe we can stomp them into the floorboards and not have to face them. However, experience shows those hidden bombs eventually explode, with emotional shrapnel taking its toll on everyone in the family.

When it comes down to it, I think that’s why I dread the holidays. The ticking bomb is much more likely to detonate during frenetic periods of forced togetherness which are possibly alcohol-fueled and certainly overloaded with stress. I’m constantly on edge, waiting for the next scornful glance or hurtful comment, always hurriedly dismissed as “Just kidding!” People who take no interest in my life from January through November no matter how much I try to maintain contact – and I have tried, on many levels, and been repeatedly rebuffed – are suddenly in my world, force-feeding me theirs. Because of the chasms between us, emotional as much if not more so than physical, we shouldn’t expect to connect in any meaningful way around an overloaded dinner table twice a year.

But we do expect it, at least some of us, and society reinforces such unrealistic expectations.

How do Hubby and I survive? Deep breaths, lots of shared laughter, and regular reminders that, for all the difficulties, family is always there, maybe not for us in ways we’d prefer, but they’re part of what makes us who we are.

And this year we can visit Norman Rockwell at the Dayton Art Institute when it’s all over.

2 comments:

  1. I doubt even Normal Rockwell had holidays of the type described in our cultural mythology. I too have so many friends who I consider family and family who are more like acquaintances (though thankfully not acrimoniously). There is so much pressure to conform to a holiday mold that meaning is lost. It's something I too ponder a lot at this time of year.

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  2. Nice to know I'm not alone in my ponderings, Barbara. Thanks!

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