I spent the last week recovering from my family reunion. We have one every five years, and this was the tenth such event. The family is spread around the country pretty well (except for the northeast) so we have been rotating the location ever since my grandmother sold the farm. This time we were in the Pacific Northwest, on the coast — Manzanita, Oregon, to be exact.
It was a wonderful time for me and, I think, for all 35 attendees. Did I say I was recovering? Well, yes. It was a very full four days. Air travel is no fun, and I was especially anxious about traveling with a toddler, but our daughter did better than expected on four flights totaling over ten hours of air time. It’s actually Xy who’s had the hardest time of it. She doesn’t travel well in any event, and hanging with in-laws over the holidays is of course stressful, and she was coming down with something when we started. She’s got just about the worst cough I’ve ever heard and I think maybe an ear infection too. She’s on an antibiotic now, plus some steroids, but she’s not getting better as quickly as we’d hoped.
Yes, it’s nice to see my extended family, though to tell the truth it’s hard to really catch up when there are so many people and time is so brief. But there’s more to it than just catching up.
It’s fascinating to see the family tree spreading out, branching and branching again. So far death has done very little pruning; the first generation is gone — my grandfather and grandmother, who started this reunion tradition — but all their daughters and their daughters’ husbands are still alive, as well as their grandchildren (my generation) and great-grandchildren. There is even a great-great-grandson now, but sadly my niece and her son (and husband) didn’t make it up from Yuma. This is the second reunion she’ll have missed; she was still living at home in Indiana five years ago when heavy weather prevented her and the rest of my sister’s clan from attending the last reunion in South Carolina. I’m worried we may lose that branch now if we don’t take extra-ordinary measures.
Speaking of the last reunion, I note that I anticipated this one with virtually none of the dread I felt five years ago. Maybe having a child really does change everything. Or maybe the flooding of New Orleans has made me value family more. Or maybe I worked out those issues last time.
I value the continuity a reunion affords. Over the years a story begins to emerge, a story that encapsulates some aspects of the American experience and indeed the human experience. I only wish I could tell that tale, but it’s beyond me. As a chronic diarist and wannabe novelist, I can only look for succinct ways to memorialize and remember the themes I don’t have time or talent to explore fully. Thus I’d like to offer two slogans seen at this reunion, emblazoned on the chests of two family members.
There’s a reason it’s called CHRISTmas.
It’s not going to lick itself.
That second phrase was accompanied by a picture of a lollipop, and was worn by my emo-inflected nephew as he headed off to church on Christmas Eve. The first phrase was worn by his grandmother (known to me as Mom).
Doesn’t that say it all?
Perhaps. But it fails to convey the ambiguities and subtle nuances of the situation.
For example: Each of the three family branches hosted the others for dinner, rotating through each of the three nights. It’s a lot of work, cooking for so many, and our family is the smallest, and we hosted on Xmas Eve. Yet we handled it pretty well, I think. My mother and sister led the effort and prepared baked potatoes with a variety of toppings. (I took it upon myself to play bartender, mixing hot toddies for all the adults. I brought three bottles of rye along in my luggage, two of which did not break in transit.) The whole family crowded into our (relatively) small place after the aforementioned church service. Before eating, my father called the family’s attention and made some humorous and touching remarks. Then my mother said a prayer. What caught my ear was a particular turn of phrase. Mom started to refer to Christmas as “the day when Christ was born” but she caught herself and spoke instead of “the day we commemorate Christ’s birth.” It was a simple thing, and I’m sure nobody noticed this — expect me. I did notice, and it filled me with a mixture of emotions that are difficult to sort out.
I was quite certain, see, that Mom was thinking of me, consciously or otherwise. I often remind people that Christmas is celebrated in late December because of its proximity to pagan holidays and not because it’s supposed to be the actual date when Jesus was born. Perhaps I have done so with too much zeal. It’s a factual point that has been important to me as my perspective on the holiday season has evolved.
I suppose the first and main thing I felt was sadness. It seemed sad to me that it’s come to this, that a dear sweet woman like my mother would have to parse her words carefully on the very night held most sacred by her faith. I’m sad that’s the tenor of the times, and I’m ashamed if I have in any way contributed to it. I hope I have not. And by the same token, it is perhaps a little sad that I’ve had to struggle as a post-Christian to understand what (and how) I may celebrate at this time of year.
Upon further reflection, I’ve come to feel a sense of gratitude that Mom knows me and cares enough about me — not to mention historical accuracy — to accommodate me in her thoughts. Rare qualities indeed!
Of course it’s entirely possible that I’m completely mistaken, reading all this significance into a simple slip of the tongue that really didn’t mean anything.
It should also be noted that, as per long-standing tradition, the family did sing “Happy Birthday Jesus” before the meal on Xmas Day. No ambiguities there. In accord with the other prayers that were said, the message seems to be simple: Hey, we’re all Christian here. No accommodation, no allowance for any who might think differently. It makes me feel rather awkward, and though I play along, I wonder how I might share back to the family something of my perspective, while remaining respectful and positive.
And yet — though I may not see ambiguity in the performance of this song, I see plenty in my heart as I contemplate it. For despite the rather obvious critical objections, it has become traditional, and I’m fond of traditions. As I recently said in an online discussion:
I do think rituals and traditions have a certain power which I respect and value; I’m not quite ready to discount religious practice so much as re-interpret it…. That said I think we have to bring our critical faculties with us if and when we go to church or temple.
When a family gathers together regularly for almost half a century and joins voices in song, that act becomes a powerful thing in its own right, regardless of how I might regard the song itself. In fact I think the singing transcends the song in some way.
And finally it should be noted that my nephew probably isn’t really emo at all. I’m far too unhip and out of touch to understand what emo actually means in today’s youth culture.