We’re going to visit Trish’s family this week. Which reminds me of a story.
I have a friend whose grandmother was a very wise person. She raised three or four kids in a corner of Wyoming. The grandmother was diminutive, not much over 5-feet tall, but she was lean and tough like a prairie chicken.
She and her husband were peaceful, godly people. The husband’s family, however, were not. They were railroaders, heavy drinkers and hell raisers, and they always invaded the peaceful Wyoming home, up-heaving its modest calm.
The home invaded was a two-story frame house, large enough for the family but small so that company stretched its seams. So, the matricarch had her husband remove the second floor. Simple solution — no more room for visitors, no more room for relatives.
This was long before passive-aggression came into fashion. And this was from a woman who did not grow up in the South. But family put her over the edge. She lived through six months of winter, 12-feet of snow, walking two miles uphill, on ice, barefoot, carrying three children in her arms, to fetch water twice a day (well, if anyone could have, it would be her). But she couldn’t confront family.
I’ve written, as a reporter, about how to deal with family-induced stress. Many experts (read: shrinks) suggest that when you visit, stay in a hotel so you have your own space to retreat to. This seems like great advice. I don’t know, I can’t get beyond the fear of confronting the family with news that we won’t confront them.
At Trish’s house, we usually wind up in the middle of an impromptu reunion. The sister from Chicago comes down. The brother from the farm comes over. The sister that lives in town stops by for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as do her kids, and now her grandkid. At least once a year the sister from Vermont flies in. One three-bedroom ranch, up to 12 adults, seven grandkids and two of babies.
This all adds up to family chaos, the brand of which I’m not familiar. Nobody shouts. Nobody slams doors. Nobody gets thrown out of the house. Everyone’s nice and funny and sometimes they spontaneously break into song (no kidding!). What’s wrong with these people? They’re too damn civil! They enjoy each other’s company.
They’re very nice people, salt of the earth. But sometimes they’re like the von Trapps, gaily jumping around in clothes made from drapes.
I’ve been around Trish’s family for six years. The first year all the attention, all the “what do you do for a living?” and “come join our musical production” was simply overwhelming. I couldn’t stand it.
Now, after all these years … I still can’t stand it! Trish knows that some of her family are obnoxious and extremely passive-aggressive and in denial (after a couple of years, Trish finally admitted that her family annoys her sometimes almost as much as they annoy me). Conflict arises when I point this out to them. Imagine that.
In their opinion I’m the odd one. And I am. But my biggest beef is that they think I should come out of my oddness, that with just the right encouragement I’ll be more like them. This has strong undertones of Catholocism, but that’s an entirely different blog!
Now add a kid to the picture — our daughter, their niece, granddaughter and cousin — and the circumstances are complicated by a factor of 10. I’d love for Ella to know her extended family. I value her being doted on and played with. They have good values (so they drink cheap beer and wine, I can overlook that to some degree).
Don’t get me wrong. I would rather Ella emulate Trish’s family than my own. But sometimes it’s as if they’re trying to indoctrinate her into the hall of sunshine and roses (not that there’s anything wrong with sunshine, or roses, if you wear sunscreen and rip the thorns off), so freaking happy that they’re out of touch with reality. These people can make Barney look like a dinasaur who knows extinction is near and is just waiting for man to invent razor blades so he can slit his tiny little wrists. They’re like human hummingbirds. Over-stimulation is not in their vocabularies. And they have this habit of wanting everyone to share their stage … or else!
There’s a video Trish’s oldest sister took when her son was about 1. He’s propped up on a kitchen counter with his aunts and his grandma for an audience, and his mom is absolutely gushing, “Josh can say — his — name! Can’t you, Josh! Josh? Say your name. Say your name, Josh. Josh? What’s your name? (in a really bad inquisitive voice, as if she’s a diminted stranger) What’s your name? Say your name. What’s your name? What’s your name?” She must say this 30 times in a minute. Of course the kid never says his name, she won’t shut up long enough!
We were were leaving Nashville to move to Maine and my mother-in-law had come to take Trish and Ella to her house for a few days; I was driving to Maine and would pick them up at the airport in New Hampshire on the way. So I’m saying goodbye to my family before I drive 1,400 miles away to a new home, and the mother-in-law can’t pick up the vibes that are practically screaming, “I’d like to have a moment with my family!” She keeps telling my daughter, “Say goodbye to your daddy. Say goodbye. Say bye. Say bye bye.” I finally said, “you know, if you’d leave her alone for a second she probably could.”
Yeah, that didn’t go over too well, either. At least they know where I stand. I won’t even go into the wedding where everyone walked up within inches of Ella’s face to squeal at her, as if she were deaf, as if she liked it. My kid has limits. She gets overstimulated, and I get a little protective of that. Give the kid some space!
Trish is normal. How, I don’t know. We’re like a couple of refugees from opposite ends of an emotionally disturbed universe — I escaped the depressives and she escaped the manics, and somehow we’ve built a life in the middle.
But as a dad, learning the ways of adaquate, if not successful, fathering, I wonder: How do I teach my daughter to be her own person and tell others to back the hell off? How do I support my kid without fighting her battles?
More importantly, I suppose, how do I step back, confident that she will be her own person, and she is be able to tell who’s off her rocker, and still love and respect the obnoxious for who they are?
Beats the hell out of me.