Sunday, September 17, 2006

Relativity ...

Family dynamics. Go figure.

Does Norman Rockwell's vision of the world exist outside of his paintings? In my mind's eye, I'm seeing a father at the head of a dining table, carving knife and fork poised over a perfectly browned bird, family looking at him with anticipation and appreciation. But what do you want to bet that there's a drunk uncle passed out beyond the frame in the living room?

No matter how idyllic a family might appear, there are always machinations behind closed doors: jealousies, estrangements, anger. A smorgasbord of dysfunction.

Some offenses are easily smoothed over, some are much harder to heal.

My mother and I had a discussion recently about parents and whether they're entitled to take credit for the success of their children. Someone once told her that she can lay no claim to our accomplishments. I disagreed. On a micro level, no, she can't, but on a macro level, she absolutely can. She raised me. From an early age, she began shaping the person I would become. Which isn't to say that parents are entirely responsible for the way a kid turns out. Kids make choices, some good, some bad. But generally speaking, parents are either a good influence and rear children who make good choices, or parents are a bad - or perhaps worse, indifferent - influence and rear children who find themselves without much of a moral compass to point them in the right direction.

In the nature-versus-nurture argument, I think a lot has to do with how you're raised. I believe that we're born essentially neutral and we're taught good behavior or we're not. And we learn by example.

Yesterday, walking through a store with my mom, I came upon something on the floor. I stooped to pick it up and put it with the others on the shelf. "I raised you right," mom said.

Yup, she did. I've gotten a lot of good behaviors from my mother, behaviors that seem to baffle many people. Which is sad, that kindness often takes people by surprise.

Pat has an interesting theory about our ever-increasingly insular lives and the preponderance of anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants. I relish small, neighborly moments because they're so rare. When's the last time you and a neighbor got together for a spontaneous cup of coffee? Do you even know who your neighbors are?

When my mom was younger, the entire congregation of her church would get together on Sunday afternoons. When I was younger, my extended family would come over on Christmas Eve. Every year. It was a tradition. Mom would busy herself for days in advance, preparing ridiculous amounts of food. Dad would busy himself the day of the party in the basement, cleaning and stocking the bar. I loved those moments right before people were due to arrive. Mom would be putting the finishing touches on something. Dad would turn on one of the Christmas albums on the downstairs stereo and an anticipation hung in the quiet air until the doorbell rang. And slowly the house would fill with people and the quiet gave way to a pleasant din, the buzz of so many people and so much cheer. And the night would wear on, and slowly people would leave, and the house would return to its low pre-party hum, and we'd gather in the living room and look at the tree, quiet, until mom and dad would shoo us off to bed so they could put out the presents and finally get to sleep.

I've lost many members of my family over the years, but there have been marriages and births in the meantime. So the actual number of people in the family has stayed rather constant. What's changed is the sociability. I used to see my cousin Lora constantly when I was younger, at my house or her house or an aunt's house. I haven't seen her in more than a year. The last time I saw her was at her brother's wedding. And I have no idea when I'll see her again. Morbidly, it'll probably be at a wake. That seems to be when most families see each other anymore.

So what happened, I wonder, in the past 40 or so years? Is technology to blame? Is it now so effortless to keep in touch that we somehow don't bother? Do we delude ourselves into thinking that we're simply too busy? Why? What can we possibly be doing that's more important?

I had plenty of stuff I could have done around the house today. But I spent the afternoon watching my niece and nephew play in their soccer games.

The grass can get cut another day.


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