Column by Jan Worth-Nelson
The trouble with holidays, really, is families. The trouble with holidays is how society arm-wrestles us into facing who begat us. Sitting around various dining room tables, the menu rife with clichéd dishes and family histories – and so often histrionics – every year we play out, once again, what we’re like when we’re together. Who doesn’t dread it: the worn-out in-jokes, the one over-exuberant drunk, the prickly narratives of hurt feelings – when she did … what was it again? – the predictable tiresome opinions, everybody taking exactly the same position they did last year, the ancestral cookie recipe that never quite turns out right, the hushed whispers about reversals and betrayals, and oh, yeah, that molded Jell-O salad loaded inexplicably with shaved carrots and cottage cheese. The way Uncle Boopie slurps his pumpkin soup.
I was at one family dinner where somebody choked on a hunk of turkey and threw up on his plate. And another one where somebody was so drunk by dinner he conked out at the table and his head fell into a pile of squash.
You know what I’m talking about
The vagaries, dear friends, of togetherness.
It’s bad enough when you’re a kid in your late teens, let’s say, just back from college or other adventures away from the Mother Ship: the overpowering effect of what it was you thought you got away from.
Then you come home and it’s all still there: your embarrassing mother, the dowdy furniture, your father’s aghast disappointment with your new politics, how nobody notices you’ve slimmed down and gotten a stylish new haircut. How you really are the middle child and that’s your role – apparently until The Rapture – and your kid brother seems to be high on meth.
But it’s even worse when you’re the grownup in the room, and, looking around that table or that overheated living room, everybody sitting there nodding off on carbs, you realize you are face to face with your own culpabilities. Who are these people you call family? What did you do to make them like that? Is there any hope for any of them? How can you possibly apologize enough?
And what of your own half-forgotten dreams? Is it your fate when all is said and done to make that green-bean casserole every year from now on, hoping somebody, anybody, will say it was good? And is that all there is? What about your dreams of music, or that secret of sneaking off to New Orleans to see what it’s like, or the itch that keeps coming up telling you to learn Tai Chi?
We’ll all be doing well to get out of this with any psychic dignity.
On the other hand:
We love each other. We need each other. When the day is done, we forgive each other – one hopes. In our human loneliness and doubts, we are extravagantly, desperately in need of kindness, compassion, understanding and Lord Almighty, a few good laughs.
So this is a time to be grateful for that circle of loved ones we’ve gathered around ourselves to keep us warm through the winter. Whoever that is. Sometimes we aren’t even “related.” Our lives can accommodate many brothers and sisters, nurturers and those we nurture alike.
My own nuclear family, though my childhood years were replete with drama, has shrunk by now to just my brother and me, and we are two thousand miles apart. But I do have a family, a collection of dear and varied souls with whom I’ve shared good and bad with passionate engagement over the years. So I don’t have to claim the aches of solitude unless I choose to go there.
We can make our own families
I’m so glad the boundaries of what makes a family have expanded over the years. The fact that gay marriage is legal and marriages and remarriage – though complicated – can now re-arrange us into a Tetris of love – makes us luckier now, if we have the sense to embrace them, to enjoy some reassuring counter-arguments against isolation and hatred.
A tale from the Olympic Grill
So, here is a story about my family – the one my real life created for me.
I was sitting in one of the big corner booths at Olympic Grill, savoring the relief of diner food the day after Thanksgiving.
When I’m in the corner booth, I feel important and fulfilled, because you can’t just sit in the corner booth alone: I think there’s a five-person minimum. I made the cut: I was with my husband, my stepson, my step-daughter-in-law and my step-grandson, Jackson. This is part of the family I’ve made, the circle of people with whom I share important history. There’s not a blood relative among us, except that Jackson, who’s six, is the biological son of his doting mom and dad.
Labels get so complicated these days. Eliot’s my stepson but not Ted’s, since he’s the son of my first husband. I suppose we could call him Ted’s stepson-in-law, etc., but that gets cumbersome. It’s all a bit anxiety-provoking. What should we tell my step-grandson to call my second husband?
He has a grandpa already who’s lustily involved in his life, his biological Grandpa Danny. Since that’s my first husband and we’re divorced, it feels disloyal to suggest that Ted would be called Jackson’s grandpa. Then there’s Grandpa Danny’s wife, and then there’s his maternal grandma, who showers him with love and gifts and yearns for more.
So Jackson calls him Mr. Ted. The sobriquet that suits me most is “Aunty,” and I would be happy being Jackson’s old aunty, but for now, he just calls me Jan.
Before going to the diner, Jackson and I had spent part of the morning sitting at the kitchen table talking about birds and things we might like to invent. I can’t remember either of our ideas, but it doesn’t matter now. It’s so much fun when anything is possible. A woodpecker landed on the Bradford pear tree – a big red-headed one, and we were both thrilled to see it.
Anyway, in the corner booth at Olympic we all started talking about happiness. How much happiness can one expect to have? In the spirit of the season, we noted our incredible good fortune: we have shelter, we all found houses to buy that we could afford, we do work we like. We get to eat food every day. We can breathe the air. Sure, we worry about our bodies. We have too many bills. We have existential moments when this life seems too brief, when fear keep us awake at 4 a.m. But still.
I turned to Jackson, who was nibbling his syrup-drenched waffle. I asked, “What makes you happy?” He twiddled his fork and took another bite.
“I have no idea,” the kid said cheerfully, entirely in the moment: the moment of the waffle. I swear he’s a six-year-old Dalai Lama. I love this kid.
“Well, you know what makes me happy?” I said, turning back to my egg-white veggie omelet. “It’s sitting here next to you.”
It made him shy. But in a minute, he recovered. For the third time, he told his favorite joke. I knew what was coming, and I couldn’t wait to hear his wonderful pealing laugh after the punchline. Here it is: What smells, is invisible, and is in a museum?
Jan Worth-Nelson is the editor of East Village Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.