Originally uploaded by aliasgrace.
A couple of weeks ago, I worked a fiftieth anniversary party. The couple being feted had seven children, twenty-something grandchildren, and a growing brood of great grandchildren. Before everyone grew up and scattered, they'd lived on a picturesque island in New England. Idyllic photographs of family members clamming together or boating or smiling across various lobster laden tables were set up everywhere.
The toasts, one by each of the seven children, were full of charming anecdotes and unadulterated admiration. While the chowder grew cold in the kitchen, my friend Jaime and I passed Kleenex instead of soup.
And when they had finally exhausted their words of praise, they turned the ballroom to bedlam with a wholesome scavenger hunt, each clue being linked to a family memory. No one declined to participate. (By then, the chef was fuming that the prime rib would be ruined if these people didn't stop acting like the Waltons and EAT.)
But the family was on island time. They ate leisurely, frequently getting up to exchange laughter and stories with aunts or cousins at other tables. No one drank too much, or argued, or went off to a corner to brood silently. Even the in-laws waxed ecstatic.
When, five hours into the party, two teenaged grandsons set themselves up as D.J.s and everyone got up to dance, Jaime and I began to fear we were there for the night.
In the back, we joked that there was something wrong with these people. We both have families we adore, but in our experience, families, all families are--well, a little crazy. Ancient grievances and complex pathologies grow in the family hothouse as abundantly as love and concern.
"Got to be some serious skeletons in their closet," I said, consulting the clock in dismay.
"You know what? I don't think so," Jaime said. We were sitting on dishracks in the back and sipped yet another cup of stale coffee.
And in the end, I had to agree. This family was the real thing--the Norman Rockwell vision of family that tortures the rest of us when our less than picture perfect tribes gathers around the holiday table.
We then filled the kitchen with a few of our own funny and tragic family stories as we waited for the party to finally sputter to an end.
I was thinking about my talk with Jaime when I read Jordan Rosenfeld's blog the other day. She wrote about how she and her writing group had been discussing "family mottos". It was a post laced with pain, humor, honesty and transcendence, which just might be the four steps to surviving life in a family.
The motto of my own family instantly sprang into my head. I was an only child and my parents and I recited our motto every night, every morning, every time we left the house: "I love you best, be careful."
It was love that came with a warning. Love that was times volatile (my father) and overprotective (my mother). Love with jagged edges and unpredictable turns. Sometimes I remember being hugged so tightly I couldn't breathe.
But who can complain about being too much loved? Certainly not me. My parents were not flawless, but to me, they were better than perfect. I loved and continue to love them for their woundedness, for the quarrels that ended in renewal, and even for the ones that couldn't be repaired in this lifetime.
And of course, a second meaning to our family motto is a more universal one: love as intense as this is treacherous. Love and you will suffer loss.
Though I hoped to eliminate both the volatility and the overprotectiveness from my relationship with my own children, they have grown to accuse me of both. I never had any illusions about eliminating the eventual loss.
We never recited the daily admonition that belonged to my original family of three, but I have passed the family motto along as if it was a coat of arms.
I love you best--be careful.
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