February 2, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Getting along together in the human family

Cynthia DewesRecently, a friend went to California with her husband and daughter for the funeral of her brother.

We took care of their dog while they were away, and were welcomed three times a day with a big grin from Scooter. (If she’d been angry, you’d probably have to call it baring her teeth.)

Anyway, Scooter was probably the only one smiling in that family during this time. Although we’ve never met our friend’s relatives, she’s often alluded to the strange and rather dysfunctional branches on her family tree. And when our friends returned from their trip, they said it was “interesting,” more or less verifying our assumptions about her relatives.

It struck me that most families are “interesting,” in addition to being plain interesting. I like to say that almost every family is a little dysfunctional in some way just because we’re human. The Waltons are fictional, after all.

Now, besides being none of our business, making judgments about families is always tricky because each family dynamic is different. For example, I’ve known families where talking at the top of your voice—in fact, yelling—was the standard mode of communication.

We once attended a party at which we, the hosts and most of the other guests engaged in heated political debate. After long acquaintance with each other, we knew we all enjoyed doing this and could argue without rancor or anger. However, one new person at the party was horrified and later told the hostess she’d been afraid we would come to blows.

Some families apparently operate on a “need to know” basis. That is, any information given to one member seems to stay only with that person, even though it was meant for everyone in the family. In this case, I take care to give two or three members of the family the same information about times or places to meet, coming events or whatever else so that at least I feel as though I’ve communicated. I’d say it works most of the time.

There are families which do just fine until someone dies and the dreaded Inheritance Demon takes over. How many horror stories have we heard about parents cutting off their children or brothers and sisters turning against each other when inherited money or property is at issue. Not to mention adding stepparents and/or stepsiblings to the mix.

Then there are families which take offense at each other’s actions or remarks and harbor grudges for years, sometimes for life. They’re always on the outs with each other, throwing friends into confusion about whom to invite to the same event. Unfortunately, this can affect these peoples’ attitudes toward families in general, including the family of their spouse. They’re suspicious of getting together with any relatives, including those they’ve added by marriage.

Some families are quiet, each person doing his own thing in the same room with the others. Some families are active, forever going skiing or throwing a party or just being generally loud. Some families never eat a meal together or never eat sitting down. In fact, some families never eat at home at all.

It seems to me that there’s no standard for a functional family to follow. But I firmly believe that it’s a good idea at least once a day to pray together, to eat together and to say “I love you” to every other family member.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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