As part of an extended family, my wife and I extend ourselves to travel back and forth between homes in Michigan and Florida, where we have kids, step-kids, and grandkids. Therefore we also extend ourselves as baby sitters – both for short term emergencies (“Could you do us a huge favor? Reilly is home sick and I have an important meeting….”) and long term luxuries (“We’d love to take our vacation in Italy this spring – without the kids….”) That’s all part of the pleasure of being parents and grandparents. No problem.
And sometimes, especially over the holidays, our extended family comes together. This is living the 21st century, when extended families have a configuration unlike the Norman Rockwell paintings we know and love and always fall short of. It was no wonder, then, that when all of our extended family had returned to their homes, Kim and I found ourselves at the checkout line in Borders with four self-help books dealing with anger.
The gathering brought into town what these may be a typical cast of characters:
- My step-daughter’s husband’s two teen-age kids from his previous marriage, visiting from Colorado. It was his “turn” to have them visit over the holidays. Each left behind a full set of friends from school, including a love interest. One brought a contagious disease.
- My step-son, his wife, and baby. They drove down, leaving Michigan on Christmas day. The baby was teething and was as sweet as could be, as long as you did not put her down or expect her to sleep.
- My step-son and step-daughter’s newly discovered half brother. Now a college freshman in Colorado, he is the product of a fling of my wife’s deceased ex-husband. This very personable young man only recently learned of his parentage (after the death of his mother), and he was here to bond with his new family. We spent a lot of time celebrating the character of his father, an activity which my wife and I found less than thrilling.
Not physically present but also part of the extended family experience were my two sons and their families. The eldest, with a very hardworking wife and two charming kids, has been depressed and out of work for a year. The youngest is engaged and trying to buy a house on his minimum wage Radio Shack paycheck (minus child support from his first marriage). We kept in touch by telephone.
Families! You gotta love ‘em! Several days into this “vacation” we had experienced a crying baby (and sleep deprivation), parents worried to death that the crying baby was bothering us, arguments about who was to take care of the crying baby, lots of coughing, some pouting teen-agers, some pouting adults, arguments about why some members of the family were being ignored more than others, arguments about who would pick up the check or what is the shortest route to see the alligators, and misunderstandings about who was going to prepare what meals and for whom. Did I mention the crying baby? It was the Magic of Christmas.
But magic it was. We ended up with two Christmas dinners (one after the post-25th crew arrived) and two present-opening events. People gave and got good stuff. (My step-son thoughtfully gave me a bottle of excellent 120-proof bourbon.) People learned what families are all about. Bonding happened.
One of the key bonding events involved Grouper Therapy. My step-daughter had heard about a guy, Captain Slim, who took people charter fishing for grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. He didn’t really want to go on New Year’s Eve, but he finally agreed. One problem: he only had room for four people.
Some were immediately disqualified (the baby; the six-year old; the two who had flown back to Colorado). Some were then drafted to look after the disqualified (the baby’s mother and some combination of my wife and the six-year old’s father). That left my eleven-year old grandson, who disqualified himself when he learned he would have to get up at 4:30 a.m. So the crew was set: me, my step-son, my step-daughter, and my new half-step-son. We all promised to “make it up” to the people left behind, though child-care, meal preparation, etc. This, of course, never happened when the time came, but we did not know that when we set out, so we were untroubled by guilt.
A skilled family therapist might be able to analyze the interpersonal dynamics that took place on the boat, a process that involved complex sibling rivalry. But the truth is, we were all too busy fishing and trying to keep warm to care much about sibling rivalry or anything else. We caught our bait – sea bass large enough for me to declare the day a success and head for home – and we baited our hooks and hauled in grouper. When they weren’t biting, we moved to where Captain Slim knew some others were lurking. During the rare moments we weren’t fishing we tried to sneak a bite of lunch (none too appetizing with fish stink on our hands) or, for the males, pee over the side. We did little sightseeing because it was overcast and we were out of sight of land. We did see dolphins surface beside the boat. I don’t think anyone sat down until we had all caught our limit.
When we returned to the marina there were photographs, celebrations, and arrangements to have the 246 pounds of grouper cleaned. We piled in the car for the 90-minute drive back to the house, too tired to talk. Or maybe they talked; I was dozing.
When we emerged from our grouper therapy session we found that all the hurt feelings were mended, all illnesses cured, the baby taking regular naps as well as sleeping through the night, and everyone supporting one another and meeting each other’s deepest needs with sensitivity and tact. Then I woke up.
Actually, everything was about the same as when we left, except everyone was more tired. Plus we had all that fish. And the next day we had football games to watch, and the women were going to scrapbook all day, and there was a possible mountain bike trip in the morning, and what were we going to do for food, and who was going to look after the kids?
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