Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Families Are Who They Are...

...and not necessarily who you want them to be.

Once upon a time, we got our ideas about reality from sermons, books and our elders, be those elders our mothers, our teachers or our superiors at work. Now most people get their ideas about reality from the television and the internet. Imagine if everyone in the West spent as much time in prayer and serious reading as we do watching television. That would be something.

That said, I got my ideas about family from books, and the principal book about a family that set my expectations of reality was Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women. And in Little Women, the father is so WISE and the mother is so KIND and, even though the family is so POOR, Meg has to work as an upper servant (i.e. governess) and Jo as a professional companion to awful old Aunt March, they have a housekeeper. Jo and Amy have their clashes, but they are resolved and even when Amy gets what Jo ought to have had (in more instances than one!), instead of resenting this her whole life long, Jo is very understanding.

Little Women is a romance about the Alcott Family's life, so the reality will shock the stuffing out of anyone who thinks Little Women is real. First of all, the Marches/Alcotts were Unitarians and didn't believe in the divinity of Our Lord. Second, no Fritz came along to shame Louisa Mae/Jo out of writing penny dreadfuls, for she continued churning them out. Third, Bronson Alcott, who in Little Women seemed to be a sort of Methodist minister, started a commune so dire, Marmee dearest threatened to take the girls and go.

A re-write of Little Women to reflect their actual reality would be AWESOME! And there would even be a Polish angle because Louisa claims Laurie was based on a Pole named "Ladislav." (Has anyone done this yet?) All this said, I still think Louisa Mae Alcott is a great model for the contented Single Life, as long as you don't get entirely wrapped up in your father and die within two days of him.

My point is that if you get your idea of Ideal Family Life from television or 19th century children's fiction or Ralph Lauren adverts, you are naturally going to be disappointed with your own family. Time after time you return to the nest to discover that, although a bit of distance has done you good, they have not changed very much. You like what you liked before, and you are exasperated by whatever exasperated you before, and it may take you awhile to adjust to the family rhythms, if you can. Personally, I love going home to Mum and Dad. Although I am startled by the noise (human and television) at first, I enjoy the routines, the orderliness and the laundry system. Visits to my married brother are similarly noisy (human and toy) but fun and bracing. Oh, now I'm getting homesick. Wah.

I am fortunate in that I know exactly what my family is like, and I know that as families go mine is amazingly blessed, and I have no irrational expectations of perfection. Although we have our challenges, we are not dysfunctional, and I would LOVE to go home for Canadian Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, if it weren't so darned expensive. (I try to tempt my family over here, but they also find it darned expensive.)

But that's me. Some of you come from dysfunctional families, and go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, hoping it will be better this year, and it never is. And my question for reflection is "Why go then?"

I have in my mind's eye a teary-eyed 50-something woman who keeps hoping year after year that her maternal and filial love and cooking will bring the whole family around the table where they will be delightful and humorous without being drunken or quarrelsome, even though drunken and quarrelsome is generally what they are. Time after time, she summons the same chemical mixture to her dining-room or kitchen and then weeps when, yet again, the house blows up. Her magic talisman, her Single daughter, did not work after all to avert the catastrophe, and she feels betrayed. So naturally she takes it out on her Single daughter, because if you can't take out your disappointment on your own daughter, whom CAN you take it out on?

If this sounds like your own mother, you may want to have a blunt conversation with her over the phone before you go home. Once you are grown up (particularly if you are no longer a financial dependent), you are in a position of strength vis-a-vis your elders' dysfunctions. You can say things like, "About Thanksgiving. I'm tired of the drunken free-for-all that happens after the pie, and this year, just so you know, I am leaving the minute the men start on the whisky. I've suffered through seeing my relations at their worst for twenty years, and I won't do it again. I'll go straight to the kitchen to wash the dishes, and then I'm going out."

Another option is to not go home at all, which will torpedo in advance your mother's or grandmother's fantasy that this year will be different, and she will have the Perfect Family Dinner. This may seem like an extreme measure, but I assure you it is physically possible. What you say is, "In light of the fact that two years ago A, B and C happened, and one year ago, X, Y, and Z happened, I will not be attending Thanksgiving Dinner this year." Then you don't.

In this scenario A,B,C, X,Y and Z are examples of real abuse, be it verbal, emotional, psychological or physical, either to you or to someone you love. You don't deserve abuse, and you don't deserve to see someone you love abused. If there is any likelihood that this is what you will suffer if you go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, then please don't go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. You may have friends in your own town who would love to have you for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, especially if they are Single or childless, and apparently many people find great contentment in serving Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner to the homeless. You might even book a room in the guest house of a monastery for the weekend, and enjoy the peace and the food for the soul.

Update: What I said in 2010.


MichelleMarie said...

"Now most people get their ideas about reality from the television and the internet."

Yes. It boggles my mind that people don't realize how amazingly strange and dysfunctional this is. I have a friend who, every time I tell her I went on a nice walk in the woods, her kneejerk reaction is to say "Aren't you afraid of the zombies????" She is an avowed fan of Walking Dead. I know she says this jokingly, but still! It's enough to discourage her from walking in the woods. I try to tell her how irrational it is that she lets her actions be shaped by fictitious fears, which she allows the media industry to shape in her - I don't think I'm getting through though. So she goes walking in the mall instead. Really??? Walking in the mall over walking on a nice, peopled, wooded path in the daytime? It makes me so angry that we are being manipulated this way.

Sometimes, whenever all my family can talk about is what happened in the latest show, I'm tempted to tell them not to watch so much television, but I don't want to sound like a killjoy. After all, people do bond over shows, and I understand the appeal of a good show myself (probably my most recent favourite is the BBC Sherlock)! What I don't understand is their love of Modern Family though. It's funny in parts, sure... but it's so clearly a work of social engineering that it makes me nauseous. What results? "I don't think gay marriage is that bad..." really? I wonder where this change of heart is coming from?

People need to pay more attention to reality - it can even be just as entertaining as a good Netflix series!

Seraphic said...

Yes, I think "Will & Grace" had a HUGE influence, too.

The TV is the preacher of the 21st century.

Sheila said...

I got my ideas of reality from Star Trek. So ... yeah.

Thanksgiving with friends is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I've lived far from family for ... well, heck, almost half my life now .... and I have to say that some of my best Thanksgivings have been ragtag groups of young couples who can't afford to visit either of their families, recent divorcees, elderly Single gentlemen, and really anyone else who likes pie and doesn't like / can't get to Mom and Dad. After dinner you can break out Scrabble or Taboo and find that everyone gets along swimmingly, since everyone is just grateful not to be on an airplane / watching football with drunken Uncle Louie.

I cannot WAIT for Thanksgiving this year, with friends again instead of family. I am thankful to be in America at least, where pumpkin, cranberries, and turkey are easy to get. I had such a time trying to obtain them in Europe ... It seems it basically can't be done unless you have Connections or Money.

anonymous for this post (again) said...

For reasons that I think will be clear after reading my comment, I am going anonymous for this one.

There are so many things I relate to in this post.

My dad grew up in a boarding school in a foreign (to me) country and got his ideas about the United States and how families in the United States functioned based on television. Then he married my mom and the children came, and suddenly he was living in a messy house with messy children who didn't always get along and a wife who had demands of her own. He was not at all suited to actual family life, and part of the reason why is, I believe, that he had unrealistic expectations. He would then lash out at us when we failed to meet those expectations because he thought it was our fault that his family wasn't like the families he saw on TV. I didn't learn how much television had affected his outlook until after I was an adult. I think his abusive family played the foremost role in why he became an abuser, but television certainly didn't help.

Your point about setting limits and boundaries, even to the point of not going to our families' Thanksgiving celebrations if it will put us in a bad situation, also resonated with me. My counselor and I have been talking about these very issues!

Seraphic said...

You can get canned pumpkin, cranberries and even turkey in Edinburgh, but you have to look hard or order your turkey in advance. There are lots of expat Americans, so the canned pumpkin makes its appearance in November rather than in October...sigh!

Domestic Diva said...

Over the past few years, I've also begun to wonder if we get our ideas about the holidays from TV, movies, The Nutcracker, Christmas cards with Victorian scenes, Christmas carols (Silent Night? really? when they couldn't find room at any inn because it was so crowded?), etc. I've realized the image I've had in my mind of the idyllic holiday (complete with snow, cozy rich food that magically appears and is magically cleaned up, warm family bonding, etc.) is more Platonic form than anyone's reality.

Boy, did that realization free me up to enjoy the holidays that actually unfolded rather than the holidays I thought SHOULD happen…and the holidays I thought everyone else was having.

Of course, I suffered from family idiosyncrasies and not actual abuse, which is a different situation altogether.

Domestic Diva said...

And - I should add - I still love the holiday movies, carols, food, cards, Nutcracker, etc. I've just stopped expecting that to be my life.

Heather in Toronto said...

I love the comment about the "not so silent" night! I've always been puzzled by the images of a lonely birth with only St. Joseph in attendance. The innkeeper would have sent for the local midwife at the very least after sending them to the barn so the Lady in labour didn't disturb the other guests and mess up the room. Last thing they need is to wake up to a dead woman in the barn and a distraught husband banging on the door.

And who says they travelled all alone to Bethlehem anyway? Issues of road safety aside, it was a bloodline thing - they can't have been the only members of the Davidic clan in Nazareth.

Sheila said...

Stock up on the canned pumpkin now and stick it in the very back of the pantry. Then you'll have it for next Thanksgiving!

That is, if you can resist making pumpkin bread, pumpkin cheesecake, and pumpkin smoothies with it all year long. I can't. I go through a can or two a week.