Monday, December 19, 2005


Coming home
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.

Sorry, guys.


Meanwhile, if anyone hasn't yet participated in my survey on your preferred reading tastes, the polls are still open. Please scroll down!


Matthew said...

this post really makes me wish my family had a crest (or at least one of which i was aware). as for a motto... i've got to think about that one, because nothing springs to mind as an easy first choice. indeed, if there is one, it is implied, not ingrained by repetition and tradition...

i, too, am sure i am too much loved, and i thank God for it each day. there is no better feeling than knowing a legion of wonderful people are wholly devoted to you, loving you despite so many things. blood or otherwise, those people are my family.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Aw, shucks, Patry. So glad my post spurred extra thought on the matter. Your writing always touches me, and especially this post. I love this family! And I love your family's motto.

happy merry!

Kerstin said...

Beautiful. Reminded me of one of my closest friends in the UK who is one of seven children. They have family gatherings like that. I met ALL of them at her father's funeral which filled the whole church with relatives. They are a wonderful family and yes, they have always reminded me of The Waltons, too! :)

Family mottos? Mmmm. I like yours, it reflects the essence of life really, doesn't it? I think ours would be something along the lines of "Intellect & knowledge. Lots of skeletons and painful heritage. Complicated love."

Your writing is quite wonderful.

Tom.... said...

You get to the heart of the matter, quickly, make your point, then move on...a talent, for sure...My own gang of 6 have so far produced 4 grands with one on the way...
a few years ago, I asked a Jesuit priest to translate the line "Never give up" into Latin. He came up with "Numquam Desiste"...we added the Latin from the Our Father, "Fiat Voluntas Tua" and thus became our family motto..."Never give up...Thy Will Be Done", two seemingly contradictory statements...but not really...
We must accept the will, but at the same time do all we can do ourselves to make it through this life.
Thanks for prompting this thought.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Vickie said...

Excellent story, Patry!

DTclarinet said...

I like the singular clarity of that phrase, "I love you BEST, be careful".

That's like my little ritual of hugging all my friends when we part. You never know...

Patry, I'm putting up a series of Christmas/Solstice poems through the 25th. If you'd like, please spread the word. :-) I started "buzzing" about it a bit late, in my usual procrastination fashion! They are poems I've written over the years for my holiday cards. I'm buiding to my favorite one Christmas Day.


Patry Francis said...

Hi R.

Matt: Your daughter is lucky to be coming to such a family.

Jordan: happy merry to you, dear! And thanks for the inspiration.

Kerstin: Yes, I love those Walton-type families, but in many ways, I'm glad I don't belong to one. Then I'd have to be the black sheep! Thanks for your kind words.

Tom: What a beautiful family motto. Thank you for sharing it.

Vickie: Always nice to see you here.

Garnet: I'll be over to check out your holiday lights!

Swirly said...

What a beautiful and moving post. My family is so tiny and fractured I can't even imagine what our motto could be or could have ever been, but it gives me something to think about, especially as the new year approaches. Thank you.

Patry Francis said...

swirly: from the joyous nature of your writing and your art, it's obvious that whatever the motto was, it must have been a good one!

robin andrea said...

Our family gatherings are raucous affairs with lots laughing and craziness. Someone is always sulking off in the corner (oh wait, that's me!). Someone is always clearing the table while the others are carrying on (oh wait, me again). Someone is always telling the story as it really was. Guess who?
No family motto, but we had a family whistle, so we could find each other anywhere. A good thing for a family of immigrants who hit the American shores in the early 20s.

Zhoen said...

I came from a bad family, but I see my cousins with one like you describe- and I am blessed to have been invited in, unanticipated family. The obligations are gone, and these folks all gather in joy.
Problem is that the folks with such great families need to know they are rare and blessed, and never assume that 'family' and 'home' mean the same to those of us not so blessed.
Real love is not a complicated threat. Just calling something love does not make it love. "I love you anyway" is a contradiction.
Thank you for this, you are a shining light.

Mary said...

"I loved them.... even for the quarrels that couldn't be repaired in this lifetime."

That's a wonderful way of putting it. And that's how I feel about my family now. And I love this post.

Family motto? Easy: Whatever you do, don't talk about it.

The 'it' varied, but the motto remained the same.

MB said...

I've been avoiding thinking, and then thinking long about this post, and will continue thinking. My family was/is complicated, a family motto not easily discerned. Perhaps there lies something. But I love the notion of distilling things down to a basic message, as I'm sure there is one much of the time. So, I will keep thinking about this one. And no, the motto would not be, "Let me think about that." Though that might color the background. ;-)

Anonymous said...

You're right ... you can't complain about being loved too much! You are an excellent writer.

Patry Francis said...

This has become a very interesting discussion.Hmm...maybe I can work it into a survey question somehow.

R.D.: Your comment made me laugh with recognition--especially the part about being the one who's off in the corner sulking or jumping into the middle of someone's story to say how it REALLY was. And I think a family whistle is an excellent motto. Sharp and to the point!

zhoen: I love your concept of the "unanticipated family," the one that invites you in or the one that you gather around yourself when you don't get what you need from your family of origin. Thank you for your lovely comment.

Mary: You've keyed in on a key sentence for me. In my experience, all love, whether its familial, romantic or other, is inevitably tainted by the flaws and limitations of the people who love you--as is our love for them. "Not talking about it" has been a guidepost in a lot of families. Sad in a way, or maybe sometimes people are so close "it" doesn't have to be said.

moose: perhaps it will come to you over the holidays. If so, I'd love to hear it. Or maybe it could wend its way into one of your wonderful poems.

Becca: And I can't complain about kind commenters who compliment my writing either! Thanks so much.

liz elayne lamoreux said...

what a great i always wanted to be part of a family like that...that is not so much my experience...

P. A. Moed said...


It's true...we do become our parents at times, heaven help us. But with understanding, introspection, and compassion for ourselves (warts and all), we muddle through.

Patry Francis said...

liz elayne: It's not most of our experience, which is why the holidays are so complicated. At least, you have your yoga!

finnegan: I like the alliteration of your comment. Good luck with the in-laws. Just think of all the great nightmares they might inspire!

p.a. moed: Well said. Compassion for our flawed selves--and our flawed families is the key.

Scot: Thanks for observing--and sharing your story about the family in McDonald's listening to each other over the din. And a merry Christmas to you, my friend.

Patry Francis said...


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