As a child, my years were punctuated with family gatherings: Easter at one aunt’s house, Thanksgiving and Christmas at ours. Each celebration filling the house with dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, and assorted “framily” (friends who have worked their way into family status). Each of these gatherings had its own traditions, birthday cakes and trampoline jumping on Easter, rice croquettes Reddi-Whip assaults at Thanksgiving, and bewilderment at Christmas, wondering who my aunts though I was as I opened presents that sometimes seemed so odd I thought the tags must have been switched. Through all these memories, I remember my grandmother as the matriarch who never hosted or even spoke much but still presided over these events from a chair in the corner.
Grandma was a business woman. Born in 1906, she was an entrepreneur and independent, liberated woman well before many women in America were consistently working outside the home. Three of her four children followed her lead and started their own successful businesses. Grandma guided and supported their efforts as she continued to run her own business well past the time that her peers were retiring. Grandma was stubborn and smart. She knew how to get her way. She was vocal about all kinds of things, and she was silent on others. There were certain things that Grandma just didn’t talk about, and no one else talked about those things either.
This grandmother passed away when I was 13 and for years, the family gatherings continued, largely unchanged. Her brood would continue to gather for holidays and repeat the traditions of decades past. Like all families, we have our complicated stories, a whole flock (it seems at times) of black sheep and disagreements, but we are not so different from other families in that way. Over time, our family “herd” evolved with each branch slowly going its own way. These changes started not so much from any disagreements as much as geography and sheer numbers. First cousins, and then aunts and uncles moved away from the Denver area and started their own lives further afield. Cousins had families of their own and before long, my aunts and uncles began to preside over their own family gatherings as the now senior matriarchs and patriarchs of their own broods.
In my own immediate family, I watched my nieces run around with their cousins as we had, starting their own new traditions of silly games and adventures. I encouraged my husband to chase them to fill their mouths with Reddi-Whip at Thanksgiving and somehow, I had become the aunt who didn’t always know what to get her nieces for Christmas. Disagreements surely added to some of the gradual loosening extended family ties and it became more convenient and comfortable to gather with our own more immediate families more than the full extended clan.
This weekend, we assembled again with the whole clan, Grandma’s whole family to celebrate my aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was the first time in seven or more years that we had all been together like that. There was something reassuring about it, like the matriarch of an elephant herd leading her family to water in a drought, we bowed our heads, made the journey, and gathered together to drink of the familiarity of family. My cousins are all parents, some are grandparents themselves now. My aunts and uncles now tote canes, and oxygen tanks as their parents did when I was a child.
Over the weekend, we ate, drank, and caught up on the lives that had unfolded since the last time we had seen one another. We watched footage of family gatherings captured 40 years ago by our dads and their “high tech” video cameras, now digitally pieced together with a grown son’s high tech laptop. No doubt, in another 40 years, the youngest among us will find today’s efforts outdated and quaint, but appreciate and embrace them wholeheartedly regardless. We marveled at the footage that showed us how things used to be as we looked around the room and recognized things as they are now.
When I started this blog, I planned to write about the familiar tensions of bygone conflicts that haven’t really gone anywhere. As I basked in the comfort of family and all their histories, I was also reflecting on the tragedy of things left unsaid even in a family like ours, one that seems to value family above most all else. I considered the conversations from the weekend that happened in hushed voices and quickly diverted depending on the ears that may have been passing by. In these moments, people really said what they thought, but not too loud or it would upset Aunt ___, Uncle _____, or Cousin _____. From politics to family history and family present, much was left unsaid, left to sort out another time, or to just hang in the shadows.
As I reflected on the ways that our collective past approaches to conflict (or the absolute ignoring of it) has entrenched the ways we engage with conflict today, I found myself struck. I was mindful of the way this small post might impact these stories and my own familial ties, and the ways my musings may do more harm than good. I realized that in the same ways Grandma led her brood to bow their heads, quiet their tongues, and not talk about certain things, so too was I feeling the pressure to not talk about it, particularly here in such a public way. Yet the things left unsaid tug at me, calling to be let out of the bag.
In this distance between what’s spoken and what is real, I feel trapped.
How does one value family? Is it in loving one another enough to be honest and open about things, even when that honesty and openness can hurt? Or is it in hushing our disagreements, squeezing a hand in encouragement, but not rocking the boat with an honest conversation?
Grandma’s style sure seems like the latter but these decades of truths left unsaid have left us scarred and disconnected, even as we bask in the glow of one anothers’ familiar company.
Personally, I wonder if we are perhaps we are drawn to practice that which we most miss in our familial past. Perhaps my career as a mediator and facilitator isn’t just a result of my personal history as an educator or problem-solver, but connected to the longer story of my family’s past. While I never expect to apply my professional skills to the conflicts of my extended family, there is some wishful thinking in me that maybe one day, these stories can be told, acknowledged, and resolved. The facilitator in me believes it can be done, and that the relief people might experience could be transformative. Until then, I will be grateful for our time together. I will be grateful for my grandmother’s grace and courage, and for her imperfections. I will be mindful about the traditions and habits I sow in my own family in the ways I make it safe (or unsafe) to have an honest conversation.