Over the river and through the woods

to the in-laws house we go!

Over the last eight years or so, S. and I have managed to merge our lives fairly seemlessly. Certainly we’ve had our share of fights, both large and small, but for the most part our existence together is a peaceful, happy one, sometimes even punctuated with exclamations of how lucky we are that we found exactly the right person to marry!! People don’t like to be around us when we get like that.

But all this tends to fall apart during holiday travel, not because he dislikes my parents or I dislike his but because we are usually forced to visit both sets over the holiday and we were raised in such disparate ways that trips like this bring everything we don’t agree on screaming to the forefront of our relationship.  While our music collection is a perfect blend of his and hers, and we finally have agreed on a recipe for acorn squash, and an equatable distribution of household duties has been assigned, visiting family always reminds us how different our approaches to life can sometimes be.

My parents still live in the house they raised Derek and me in, for instance. They’ve lived in the same small town for over 35 years. My dad was the local high school English teacher and my mom worked for a county newspaper and that is just what they did.  It wouldn’t be fair to say they didn’t instill a work ethic in me, but the emphasis in our household was definitely more on fun and relaxation than it was on work.  I happen to be a bit of an overachiever and so any expectations my parents had for me were generally exceeded – these are not people who ever expected straight A grades or the mastering of an instrument or anything. Certainly they supported whatever we tried, but they didn’t get worked up about much.  Dinner time, in my house, could be any where from 5:00 to 9:30 pm, and if Derek and I couldn’t make it, that was okay. When I think back on my family life and my growing up, what I recall most vividly is a complete lack of schedule or demands, so much so that I rebelled by becoming incredibly regimented, keeping a day-planner from the time I was 14 and desperately trying for the perfect grades, the perfect extracurriculars, etc. It always seemed to me, and still does, that my brother and I supplemented my parents lives, that we provided them a lot of joy, but we never became the center of their attention.  The older we get the better parents they become, actually – I think they appreciate us more as adults able to share cocktails and interesting conversation more than they did when we were cute and cuddly but unable to verbalize ourselves.

S. grew up in a family that moved every four years,  and with such a transitory life his family is an incredibly tight, efficient unit. The whole family, actually, is very musical and so an emphasis on learning an instrument was instilled in S. and his sisters from a very young age. Now one of his sisters plays the oboe in an orchestra and the other is studying to become a music teacher.  Attending graduate school is considered a given, and the pursuit of academia is the most valued goal. S. grew up with Saturdays designated as “chore days” and growing up he and his sisters never slept in, saw movies during the day, spent hours reading or just generally relaxed.

It’s important to note that I don’t think there’s a right or wrong here – actually, I think a combination of two such households is actually ideal, and S. and I represent that kind of combination.  But it’s important for both of us to recognize just how different our households and parents are in order to realize the potential landmines of holiday visits.   We will spend the next few days in New York with S.’s family, and I am really excited to do so, but the visit is replete with a mandatory family photograph at local photographer’s, a going-over of my in-law’s estate and S.’s duties as executor, dinners we know the menus for already and the desire to please, since we rarely see them and we love them and want them to know that. Then, it’s off to Pittsburgh, where my brother is hosting the actual holiday in the restaurant/bar he owns, and my parents and S. and I are staying in a hotel.  Pittsburgh will be fun if only because S. and I lived there for years and it’s like returning home for us, but our days in Pittsburgh consist of the following plan: We’ll all run into each other and figure things out. By which my parents mean, we’ll go to some movies (S. HATES movies. HATES them),  hang out in some pubs, and just generally wander around the city with no schedule or plans whatsoever. 

Last night, I prayed for the compassion to just be kind, through all of it. There is no one person who upsets me or bothers me on this trip, and in fact I love every single person I’ll be spending time with. It’s the circumstances and not the characters who make the idea of this trip stressful, and so I hope I can greet everything that occurs with a sense of humor, with love, grace, joy and understanding. It is, after all, a magical time of year – the time of year we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the whole glorious nativity story, the time of year when miracles happen.  There have been some wonderful posts in the blogosphere about Christmas and the expectations it sets up, but I am lucky and for the most part I have always had happy Christmases, and if I can maintain that sense of wonder and joy while we travel, we should all be a-okay.  I mean, after all, I’ve married the exact perfect person for me. That’s all I ever will really need to know about miracles and faith and things working out. 

Okay! Onto the important thing – my travel reading – I’m currently being blown away by the third book in my From the Stacks Challenge, Country of My Skull, about the Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. It’s the first book that’s ever defined for me “hearbreaking and beautiful.” I also have Gilead, T. Jefferson Parker’s latest (can’t remember the title) and Lee Child’s first book.  And I’m permitting myself a book store binge if I feel the anxiety rising. Nothing like a pile of new books to tame the beast within.

A very, very, very happy holiday to everyone. Everythinginbetween will return near the end of next week. 

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6 Responses to Over the river and through the woods

  1. Pauline says:

    I totally relate to this feeling. It’s stressful to deal with everyone’s expectations, especially when each family is so different. I wish you peace and I’m sure everything will be fine! Happy holidays!

  2. Emily says:

    Okay, so the similarities just keep growing. How did you and S manage to be such a close replica (only younger) of Bob and me? I grew up in a very relaxed household; he grew up in a family that moved every 4-5 years, with everything regimented and chore day on Saturday (bright and early). He has diaries written circa age nine, in which he actually notes things like “Got to read in bed for two whole hours today!” Luckily, he’s rebelled by being someone who likes to spend hours reading in bed.

    And I have the same reactions when we get together with family. It’s fun but also very, very stressful. Hope it all went well!

  3. Dorothy W. says:

    Family! I don’t know how people make it through the holidays sometimes. But it sounds like you two know exactly what to expect, and I think that helps. I hope you are enjoying yourself!

  4. litlove says:

    I loved this post, Courtney, it was SO true. I feel exactly the same about our families. My husband comes from a large family where everyone treats everyone else like they were distant acquaintances at a cocktail party. My family are utterly suffocating in their love. We want something in the middle, but buffeted between the extremes, we lose sight of our choices in the urge to please everyone but ourselves. Aaaghhh! Show us the way forward, do. Compassion and patience sounds about right.

  5. What a lovely post all about families and books and things close to my heart. I love how the two of you have combined the good of your two families and shed the less good, thereby making your own family. One day, they’ll all be coming to you for Christmas, and enjoying watching you and S. celebrate YOUR way.

    As for the Antje Krog, isn’t it a wonderful book? It’s hard to say it’s a book one enjoys because the subject matter is so tragic, but there is something unique about a poet writing as a journalist, isn’t there?

    Have a wonderful holiday. Looking forward to having you back!

  6. bloglily says:

    As you so wisely say, it’s helpful in the extreme to remember, as things are happening, how much you actually love the people you’re going to visit. After 20 years of Christmases, we’ve finally settled on Christmas morning at our house, and Christmas day at my husband’s mother’s house, a place where Christmas is rowdy, loud, excessive and delicious. I used to hate it, which I find really hard to believe. Now that I feel more objective (it took about 15 years to get there), I can see them as the fun people they are, and not be put off by something that’s so different from my own background, where Christmas was a religious holiday first and a secular, gift giving one second.

    Happy travels to you both!

    xo, BL

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