father’s day. mother’s day. birthdays. anniversaries. they’re times when we stop to reflect on the special people we’re thankful for.
when i think of “family,” the first thing that comes to mind is MY family: our small, tightly knit unit. we live in a city where extended family is far away and we’re grasping for time and sanity to spend in quiet solitude. because our day-to-day is so chaotic, we strive for time alone: husband, kids, dog (when we had one). the occasional visit from my brother or parents. rarely room or time for more than moments we have to ourselves.
but to my mom, it was altogether different. she was the matriarch, the glue. and she was happiest when our house was ground zero for the parade of eccentric characters that came to “our family” holiday celebrations.
growing up i was always a bit annoyed, even resentful, of the mandates that family functions took precedence over friend parties, sleepovers, and all the “cooler” things that everyone else was doing. nope, we had to high tail it to the family get-togethers and endure the annual “traditions.”
they would come from near and far—two minutes to 200 miles away. the caravan of cars pulled in one by one, and lined up like cordwood, spanning the length of the driveway and half-way down the street. there would be hugs and howls as each family entered…and then the real fun began.
being cornered by the overbearing uncle, who would grill us about politics and life choices, and rant about how everything was better in his native country of germany. being simultaneously told you’ve gained weight while also being scowled at for not having a second helping of every dish my aunts cooked. trying in vein to hide from the camera-happy cousin taking pictures of everyone in their least flattering poses and glam shots of all the food on the table (yes, i’m pretty sure my relatives invented food porn long before instagram was ever a thing). having to sing a cappella christmas carols in front of the entire doting clan in exchange for presents at midnight on christmas eve. and later in the night, in the wee hours of morning, trying to find an open spot on the floor to sleep (one year my cousins and i actually slept in my parents’ walk-in closet!) because all the beds were taken by “the oldies.”
this was our family. huge. loud. eccentric. embarrassing…and yet at the same time, though i didn’t realize it then, endearing.
over the years we certainly had our fair share of family drama, and i remember hiding out in my bedroom with my cousins during these functions, fantasizing about the day we’d start our own “normal” traditions. they’d be shiny and civilized, and most certainly rice-less. we’d make a martha-stewart-worthy spread and wax philosophical about art and culture and other noble pursuits as opposed to gossiping about this shrewd uncle or that ungrateful nephew or the best place to buy bittermelon in china town.
but the further i was from home—going to college, moving to another city and ultimately raising my own family—the more i came to realize that i missed it…and understand why she loved it.
last thanksgiving, we had just the kind of holiday i pictured in my head as kid. perfectly roasted turkey, homemade sage cornbread stuffing, carmelized brussel sprouts and cranberries by candlelight, yoyo ma on the ipod and wine by the fire. it was lovely—180 degrees from the merry, motley crew of family get-togethers growing up.
the festivities went off without a hitch, yet there was still a vague, subtle sense of something missing. certainly not the torment or judgment…but definitely that feeling of something larger than yourself.
connectedness. despite all our crazy idiosyncrasies, the blemishes and black sheep that every family has, we shared a tie—that bonds us all together, when life pulls us apart. for better or worse, we share a past. a history. memories far more enduring than the ephemeral acquaintances that grace our facebook feed.
watching my kids at the rare family function, it struck me that sometimes the thing you’re trying to run away from is the very thing you gravitate toward. or at a minimum, with age and years and hopefully a bit more wisdom, you simply look at in a different light. a more forgiving one.
my black and white notions of what family was supposed to be: they’re softer, warmer, smoother around the edges. like an old cozy sweater, family is comfort, the familiar. no pretense. just there, on the shelf, waiting to wrap you up when you need it.