Getting to know my family

It feels a little like a Hallmark channel movie, the joy I feel as I wake up this morning. A few weeks ago, I wrote about preparing for the holidays emotionally to help you, not really knowing it was for me. But it wasn’t really about helping, it was a confession, a hidden essay about pain, disappointment, and longing, using the holidays as a scapegoat. Mette, my sweet Mette, after reading the blog about how much I hate the holidays, asked me when that started. We were on our evening walk, one of my favorite parts of the day, and as we walked, I searched for the answer. There is something about moving the body to help move the mind, explore thoughts, not let feelings take over a sitting frame, and just having more oxygen from breathing more. As it turns out, I started hating the holidays when we built our first farm. Ironic to have this amazing space and all those wonderful horses and feel trapped. Horses are 24/7 every week of every year. Most days, that is great, but on holidays, not so much. Staff can be tricky, and they have holiday needs, too. So, for the last twelve years or so, I have worked on Christmas day, taking care of the horses, allowing Mette to go home to be with her family since we moved to Florida. Being Jewish, I assumed that the holiday wasn’t as important to me as to her, but I was wrong. What I discovered yesterday was that it isn’t about Christmas or Hanukkah per se, but about the time with family that I was missing.

I have two sisters and a brother, and I am number three, yes, a typical middle child. Holidays were a special time for us growing up and it was usually our house where the congregating occurred. My mom loved to cook and host, at least I think she did, because everyone always came to our house. It was fun and celebration, with fighting and drama as garnish, you know, the usual stuff. When it wasn’t a holiday, there was still fighting and drama, especially between my parents, causing the closeness of us kids to form more out of protection than affinity. Either way, it stuck, and my sisters have been the most important people for my whole life. Both of them living in our native Pittsburgh, I have always been the one to travel “home” to see them for logistical reasons mostly. The cost for one to travel as opposed to five or more is obvious. But this year, out of the blue, my little sister brought her husband and three children to my house on Christmas. A first! In the thirty years I have lived away, this is the first time, and it has been magical. Even though she is fifty, she is still my little sister, I suspect she always will be. She never corrects me when I introduce her that way and I bet because that is our deal. I protected and took care of her through junior high and high school, as it was the two of us left at home after the divorce and the older two went off to their lives. I taught her to drive a stick shift before she got her license, got her puking drunk for the first time, and we would set the alarm to wake up to watch Saturday Night Live. We listened to records in the living room, or the world famous KROQ since we were in Southern California, and we laughed and fought and laughed. We hung out in different crowds at school but always took care of each other at home. I read somewhere that your cousins are your first best friends, but in my case, it was my little sister.

Married for almost thirty years, her children are no longer children at 23, 19, and 16 years old. Her home has been the hub as she took the baton from mom and began hosting everything as soon as she had a house. Having a great marriage, her children’s bond with each other is not out of survival, but actual affinity. They not only love each other, but deeply like each other. It is amazing to watch them move about, so familiar with one another, unconsciously anticipating the next move or word, ready with a funny quip or touch. The laughter and poking at each other is constant. As I watch them play together, no matter the context, it is always about play or fun. The jokes are inside and out, and the joy is contagious. They have always played cards or board games together and I honestly think that is part of their secret sauce. Not a big card player ever, last night I joined them for a game of “Oh Hell” and had the time of my life. What I saw and experienced was incredible. The card game is strategic and competitive, a perfect fit for this five-some. I had forgotten how competitive my little sister is. She lost, big time, and the rest of them basking in the pleasure of her torture was hilarious to witness. Normally the winner, I even beat her on my first go. The ribbing was incessant and delicious, and pure love. There was this constant balancing, within and between each person, and the importance of it cannot be overlooked. Pressure testing in real-time, pushing but never past a limit. It started with trying to teach me, the lame duck, how to play this game. Each of them had a different teaching style, leading to great confusion on my part. I sat and smiled, as I put my competitive nature aside at first, and just enjoyed the love and passion. They push each other, with gentle force, to be better while simultaneously allowing each other to fail, safety net in tow. It was like watching a boat gently rocking on the water, shifting back and forth while the water moves it about, never tipping so far as to be a real threat. That is the design of a boat, it is meant to adjust, to move with the water, not against it. The bigger the waves, the more demand on the boat, thus requiring an increase in capacity. They tested each other but never too much, behaving as both water and boat. The unspoken agreement contained play, respect, humility, and competition as pillars. Each personality exposed, I saw new pieces to each of them. They know each other, deeply and at the core because of this constant and consistent play. They trust each other, making way for the kind of laughter that makes your cheeks hurt. The vulnerability was astounding, leaving me speechless and in awe.

This playground at the kitchen table is where they learned how to be such great people. The give and take, success and failure, win and lose, support and demolish, and laugh and cry. They learned to be good losers and good winners. They learned to take a beating and also how to thoughtfully give one. They learned it is about way more than winning, although winning is great and to be celebrated. My middle niece had a perfect game and set a “world record” with her score. She boasted but perfectly. The thrill it was for each of them was beautiful, as if they all won. Earlier in the day, we all went to see a movie, which ended up being a tough go. The movie was intense and out of the nine of us, only my nephew and brother-in-law liked it. A quick bout occurred between nephew and niece as we left the theatre. The intensity of the movie to blame, emotions were up and so a normal sibling “discussion” was due. But then it was over, no one hung on to anything and by the time we were sitting at dinner, it had disappeared. I guess I expected that but was still awesome to see, that they can disagree, separate position or opinion from relationship, and still love and like each other. Bigger waves, sure, but big enough boats to handle the chop. 

As we drove home, all seven of us in their rented minivan, my niece said, “Let’s play rose-bud-thorn.” Not knowing what this new game entailed, I looked over at Mette, who also had a hint of dread in her eyes. My niece started, “My rose was being with Stedinger (one of our horses who put his head in her chest and the two of them seemed to merge into one for what seemed like forever). My thorn was the movie (yes, she was on one side of the post-movie discussion), and my bud is riding him tomorrow. Ha, rose-bud-thorn was a way to complete the day and look forward to the next one. We went around the car and all shared ours, some surprising and some just plain lovely. I sat there shaking my head in wonder at the simplicity of this “game” and how this family uses it to create connection, love, and familiarity. Familiarity, the word starts with family yet had never meant this much to me, ever. My rose was just about the whole day, every laugh, every tickle in my heart, every smile I felt from them. My thorn is knowing tomorrow they will leave, and the emptiness will create a sadness I won’t want to feel. But my bud is what they have taught me. Not fully able to capture it, it is something about how I think I knew them which kept me from learning more about them. My nephew is 23 years old and becoming a grown up. He went to UCLA, my alma mater, and has stayed in LA, working in the music industry. He liked the movie, even chose it reluctantly for us all, and so as I struggled with the theme and intensity of it, I wanted to know what he liked about it. A conversation began, which lasted for an hour, about cinematography, character development, the psychology of the movie, and how it made him feel. That spilled over onto travel and his recent trip to Japan and how he fell in love with the culture there. Always a deep thinker, being granted access to them was incredibly special.

For the decade I spent teaching corporate companies and individuals how to craft a personal purpose or mission statement, I always joked about changing up the conversation to have greater meaning. Instead of asking, “Hey, how was your year?” what if we asked, “Hey, how’s your mission in life going?” The room would express a collective chuckle followed by a brief glazed over glance into space, and I could see their minds contemplating this change in menu. Then, the shudder back to reality as they wrote this proposal off as not possible. Turns out people really prefer being asked about what they are up to or even wish they were up to as opposed to what they have recently accomplished (or not). I guess in my corporate joke that wasn’t really a joke, I missed communicating the need for balancing the conversation. My little sister’s family balanced things in a special way. Laugh, tease, joke, check in, give support, rinse and repeat. Not perfect but different. I get too serious, way too serious. Some people never get serious enough. These past few days with them showed me a new way to negotiate them both. For the first time, perhaps since I can remember, I feel renewed after a holiday. Not exhausted or needing just to get back to my daily grind, but invigorated, and happy. Three days. Wow. Thank you, Ryan’s for coming and infusing us with you. I will cry today as you leave, look forward to the next time, and practice what you have taught me. Finally, a happy holiday.

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