If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
– George Bernard Shaw
I come from a small family. I have only one sibling, as did my mother. And my maternal grandmother was an only child, from a rather proper, elegant family, who all passed away before I was born. As a result, our family holiday gatherings were pretty quiet affairs -just my grandmother and our family of four around the Christmas tree or the birthday cake. Once a year we spent a wonderful week at Rehoboth Beach with our mother’s cousins and their children. I have gorgeous memories of those rare summer weeks, running up and down the boardwalk and playing cards on the sleeping porch of our cottage, while the parents drank gin and tonics and played bridge in the living room.
But my father‘s family was LARGE – lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, who only lived 40 minutes away. But for some reason we rarely visited them, nor they us. I think it was because my formidable mother privately thought they were a bit beneath us. They were blue-collar West Virginia people with some ‘issues’, including a few babies born to teenagers, some failed relationships with apparent losers, and even an inter-racial marriage to really send my mother over the edge. If it wasn’t my mother’s distaste keeping us away from those cousins, it may have been instead my father’s intense loner personality. He’d rather spend a Sunday afternoon tinkering in his workshop, while my mother played golf. Visiting was a bit of a chore to both of them.
As soon as my brother and I completed college, we moved out. And we NEVER looked back. I was working and married within six months after graduating, and Scott entered Officer Candidate School at Quantico. We went our separate ways, knowing we were loved and supported, but happy to be on our own.
I had no idea I had been missing out on anything until I married my husband Andrew and met his family. Or rather, I should say, until I experienced his family. (Just like the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but without the Greek part). This family is a BIG family on both sides- three generations living, each generation with many kids, and regular family reunions attended by 50+ people. But what’s even more amazing are the dynamics of Andrew’s immediate family. This family is a tribe of unique and somewhat eccentric people who enjoy nothing better than being together. They live in the same town. Although some may have left the nest temporarily to test their wings, they have all come back. When circumstances or economics dictate, they even live together (in the SAME HOUSE). They joyfully care for each other’s children, daily if needed. In fact, most of the children have been raised by the communal tribe. They have been known to take in “strays’ – kids or friends who need a temporary resting place, or fellow artists on tour. They rally around whoever is in stress or pain at the moment. And they have lots of ‘issues’ that my mother would have disapproved of. They have been musicians and dancers, artists and bartenders. They have been rolling in the money, and poor as church mice. They have lived on a sailboat and on a tropical island, as well as in mansions in exclusive gated communities. Some have entertained in Playboy clubs up and down the east coast; another farms the land without electricity in the Azores. They are million dollar salesmen, former domestic workers and homemakers; entrepeneurs, tavern wenches and amateur chefs. And yes, there are a few alcoholics and paranoids, some submissives and some control freaks.
But what you won’t find is too many secrets. Everyone knows most of the details of each other’s highs and lows. They’ve ridden the crest of each other’s highest wave, and cried together in the lowest troughs. Whether it’s birth or death, separation or reconciliation, joyful announcement or dark confession, they experience it together.
Those of us who married into this family have our own sub-unit called the “Outlaw” club. Sometimes at family gatherings, the Outlaws will flock together. We might make some snide comments on what it’s like to live with the tribe, while we roll our eyes knowingly at the latest crazy antics being perpetrated. For a few minutes we chuckle and act like we are above it all. But truly not a one of us would ever part with their member card.
In the movie Avatar, the clan of Na’vi people connect to each other, to their planet Pandora, and to the wisdom of their elders through a biological neural network. They can enter the immortal flow of energy at will, by using their queue to literally plug in to each other or to the earth. Each meeting or gathering is a chance to renew the sacred connection – to plug in and to re-charge – by entering the warmth of the great circle. The connection is always there, whether you are plugged in or not; but there is a physical and spiritual rush of renewal when you step into the tribe’s circle and touch hands and hearts once more.
On New Year’s Eve we plugged into that precious circle of family again. And it was magical and renewing as always. Membership in this tribe is one of the great blessings of my life, and of my children’s as well. Even when the skeletons come out to dance.