My family, like most, is a disparate group. My grandparents had three daughters, two of whom had two children, the eldest, six. Those ten grandchildren, myself included, are “all grown up now,” only one still in high school. Four of them are married, with children of their own. Throw in a single uncle, a handful of stepchildren, and the fact that at 5′ 7″ I’m the shortest of my generation, and you’ve got a big group in more ways than one.
When I was growing up, we all got together for every birthday and major holiday, usually at my grandparents’ house. I thought those gatherings were great. That changed as we all grew up.
There was the Thanksgiving my cousin told me that she was pregnant and probably going to have to marry the child’s father. The word spread around the group quietly, no one sure who else knew, making the evening oddly macabre. There was the first couple years of Dubya’s administration, when September 11th and the wars brought political talk to a divided table. There was my own awkwardness, before I moved East, growing more and more depressed as a lonely writer living with my folks, not much to say and asked even less. There was the anger over who attended whose wedding, and why or why not. There was my grandmother (pictured at right) asking me grimly if I intended to settle back East and then treating me like a stranger for the rest of the day. There were those months and years when one of us was just absent, running with the wrong people, running wild, or in my case, running East.
I think families are groups of people who choose to accept each other’s brand of insanity. Asking one family to accept another’s unspoken agreements, however, can be difficult, especially when ours are boozeless gatherings.
Going home for a Christmas party sounded like fun and hell at the same time.
My cousin and her husband put me up for the weekend. We caught up on the past year, played with the baby, went shoe shopping. The day of the party, though, my hosts and I grew restless, circling the house like caged jungle cats who know the vet is making his rounds that day. Was my grandma going to punish me again for abandoning the Northwest? Would all the new and newish spouses mingle and be welcomed? Would it be weird to see the cousin I hadn’t in probably eight years? Would I wind up playing the ugly duckling, the snooty stranger, or the missed relative?
I had no answers, just a $1 pair of Walmart Christmas earrings and a new purple dress to defend me.
My aunt’s church, in Seattle, has a lovely Ikea-modern decor and a spacious rec room. My aunts and grandmother were setting the tables with cloths, candles and glass goblets when we arrived. We were early, gathered around my uncle and grandpa, as others started to arrive. My grandma insisted we “integrate,” but my uncle proved too entertaining to leave. Despite people having to “integrate” towards us now and then, talking and laughing and eating carried on around the room.
I teased my cousin Bryan about his fondness for enforcing rules. I talked about web design with my aunt. I told my grandpa about the flights, the cab drivers, the hotel in Chicago. I laughed with another cousin’s girlfriend of a couple years, who I hadn’t met yet and immediately liked. I ate too many Swedish meatballs.
Nothing was particularly different this visit. Just better. I still have little in common with my relatives. Most of them believe in working hard, saving money, marrying young, raising families, going to church, buying houses and cars, all of which I show little sign of ever doing. But it’s just possible, at twenty-eight, I’m starting to make sense to them all as the one who isn’t going to make any sense. Like my single great-uncle, who used to live to party in Anchorage, talks little, votes Democrat, and is dating one of the many elderly women in his ‘hood who ply him with casseroles and fudge, I may slowly gain exception credits, no longer expected to do what everyone else seems to do naturally.
This visit wasn’t like a few years ago, when I came back to be in my cousin’s wedding, and my life was awesome. I was dating a sexy European, had a fun job, went out in Greenwich Village every weekend, and shared a cute apartment with a great friend. It was also not like visits that followed my graduating high school, when I would try to explain my decision to write instead of get a job, to relatives who could find no response to such insanity.
I didn’t feel awesome, and I didn’t feel like a freak, I just felt like a single twenty-eight year old woman visiting her relatives back home. I wished I had a drink in my hand, a man by my side, and a half-finished novel on the desk at home, but contented myself with the new purple dress and the deliciousness of my grandma’s ham. I don’t know if I felt accepted because I had accepted myself, or if I accepted myself because I felt accepted by them, or if we were all just high on non-alcoholic cider and I imagined it all.
Either way, last Sunday made me realize again the value of relationships that survive the awesome years and the awkward ones. It isn’t always a great time, but it always means something. And when it is fun, like it was last Sunday, you leave with this funny feeling in the pit of your stomach… of being loved.
I’m glad I went.