This story begins with the ending. Traveling home from a long Labor Day weekend visit, I asked our guest if he’d had a good time. There was no hesitation whatsoever in his answer: “Oh, yeah! Your family’s lots of fun.”
“That’s right,” I wisecracked, “we’re dysfunctional, but in a totally loveable way.” I was only joking, but my daughter’s response was heartfelt:
“But Mom, we’re not dysfunctional at all.”
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Just 48 hours earlier, twenty of us gathered around a table laid out with a seafood feast so vast and sumptuous it made our mouths water, our wallets weep, the Atlantic gasp, and the neighborhood crickets quiver in fear that we would run out of things to dip in drawn butter and come after them. I could almost hear their crickety little admonitions: “Dammit, Carl, keep your legs quiet—they’re down to their last dozen snow crabs!”
My family builds its calendar around beloved traditions, and the Labor Day get-together crowns our entire year. Though it’s not a religious holiday, eveyone’s higher power is thanked freely. And though the atmosphere is party-like, the only gifts exchanged are the gifts of each other’s company. Gazing from face to face,I tried to define, tried to qualify this group of people each of whom occupies a special room in my heart. Parent, child, cousin, niece, nephew, brother, sister, boyfriend, domestic partner, fiance, lifelong friend. . .every title an honor and a term of endearment.
By the numbers, we look like this:
2, 564: the greatest distance in miles traveled to be there
650: a conservative estimate of the dollars spent on seafood
148: the combined years of marriage among the spouses
100: average amount spent per family to make personalized t-shirts for the occasion
28: the number of cell phones, iPads, and laptops running concurrently
18: how many years we’ve gathered together for Labor Day
14: various musical instruments played by attendees
13: college degrees currently held by the group
12: number of handmade trophies prepared to be awarded after games
11 – 79: our range in ages
9 and 11: the numbers of females vs. males
8: hours held out until someone proclaimed Firefly to be the greatest TV show ever cancelled
5: pots of coffee brewed each morning
3: hours until someone compared our family to the one in the movie While You Were Sleeping; also the number of dogs vying for food slipped under the table
2: hours until it was noted that the Orioles and the Pirates have lost a combined total of 162 games so far this season
1: Irish Car Bomb consumed by me to the chagrin of my kids and the delight of my nephews
Demographically, we represent the following groups:
Around the same table each morning we laid out a banquet of a different kind: tinctures and pharmaceuticals designed to manage hypertension, hypothyroidism, glaucoma, fertility, heart function, depression, anxiety, asthma, allergies, hormone replacement, attention deficit disorder, chronic pain—all of this because life is messy, and we live life. We go out into the world and take what it has to offer, then bring it all back. Triumphs and tragedies walk among us like poltergeists until they see that we are humans, whole and actual, because of—and sometimes in spite of—-their presence. We absorb these experiences and emotions; they become part of our collective history, and then we move on to make even more memories and even more mistakes.
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Later in the car, I contemplated my daughter’s firm proclamation, “But Mom, we aren’t dysfunctional at all.” And here is my conclusion:
Taken as a group, we probably shouldn’t work. We probably shouldn’t get along as well as we do. And yet, year after year we seek each other out for company, for recreation, for playful hijinks, for advice, for lively debate, and perhaps most importantly, for emotional support. In each other’s presence, we are unafraid to be imperfect, we are open to encouragement, and we are guaranteed to feel love—-the kind of love that is apparent even when we don’t like each other very much at the moment.
Every family has emotional baggage, and ours is no different. We are just devoted to each other, and through simple acts like cooking and eating together, playing card games, watching movies, making family t-shirts, giving out homemade awards, and somehow managing to keep track of seven rambling conversations at once, we help each other carry that emotional baggage. Life is a big, old, emotional mess. And we live life.
So now I amend my earlier comment: We might be bat shit crazy at times, but we function like a well-oiled and time-worn machine. As it is now, so shall it ever be. . .