Visiting my parents’ house is always strange. There are such happy memories around every corner, mixed in some weird way with memories of pain and heartbreak. And then there are my younger siblings, the majority of them still at home, still living the life I knew growing up. Others have grown and left home, but still return for the holidays.
(There really should be a book on how relationships between siblings evolve from kid-kid relationships to adult-adult relationships. It’s a fascinating process to see played out again and again, and one fraught with the possibility of failure.)
And then there are Sally and Bobby, neither of whom know anything of disagreements, differences in belief, or past scars. They look at their grandparents and aunts and uncles with nothing but smiles and excitement, which is as it should be. And yet. Sally and Bobby may in some sense function as the keys that bring my parents and I together, but they are also a symbol of what holds us apart.
Every time I allow Sally to leave the table without finishing her food, or negotiate with her about her bedtime rather than simply laying down the law, I sense tension surrounding me in my parents’ home. When I mention something Sally learned in daycare, more tension. When I mention without thinking that Sally is looking forward to kindergarten, thus admitting that I we will be sending Sally to public school rather than homeschooling her, there is silence.
It seems that, at my parents’ house, there is almost no topic of conversation that is not fraught with pitfalls and flashing danger signs. Several days ago I read a post called Strangers at the Table, by Dulce. I could have written almost the exact same post.
Seated around the Thanksgiving table, smiling sincere but tight smiles. We are family–it shouldn’t feel awkward, but somehow in their presence any social polish I have acquired is stripped away and I revert to a gawky twelve year old.
Say something. We’ve already talked about how much the kids have grown, work is going well. Um, now what? Not the elections. Definitely not the elections. We didn’t spend the last three months politely ignoring each others’ political posts on Facebook for it to all blow up now.
Sports. Hunting. Cars. I don’t even know enough about those topics to ask intelligent questions. I’m pretty sure I should avoid parenting stuff.
Another bite, another strained smile. Could you please pass the rolls? Wow, your turkey is delicious. What did you put in the dressing this time? We sit at the table together, while I frantically construct a Venn diagram in my mind of topics that we are both interested in. The areas that overlap are ones where our viewpoints are diametrically opposed. I suck at small talk. And underneath it all is so much love and fear of hurting them or of being rejected, but we must not quite be doing it right because perfect love casts out fear and there is still fear here.
It’s so strange. It’s family. There shouldn’t be fear – but there is. And Dulce is right, it’s the combination of love and fear – on both sides – that makes the entire situation so surreal. It’s an odd cocktail of feelings that leaves no one happy but keeps everyone coming back.
As time goes by, though, I’m finding that things are getting better. I’m stronger than I used to be, and am learning how to maintain a healthy balance in relationships with family. My parents are learning too, and gaining experience as they work out what it means to parent adult children. My siblings are growing and realizing their own interests and forming their own ideas about the world. The hurts of the past are healing and fading and, little by little, we’re all finding a new dynamic.
And perhaps we are all simply realizing that family is something you can’t simply imagine out of existence, that even with huge differences and disagreements, family will always be family.