What you may have noticed is that there are certain "traditional" family gatherings that I never mention, because they don't hold the same level of significance in my life. In fact, they typically bring forth feelings of fear and dread.
I'm talking, of course, about any activity that involves the gathering of my nuclear family: my mom, dad, brother, and sisters. Which is what happened last night.
I wish it could be different. I wish that I could go to those gatherings calm in mind and body, ready to smile and laugh and just enjoy being around people that I lived with under one roof for twenty years.
But it rarely works, and the only comfort I derive is the fact that these get-togethers rarely happen, owing to the fact that my sister Laurie lives in Arizona.
The last time we gathered was about two years ago, when my grandmother passed away. Given the situation, that gathering was relatively benign. The time before that was a summer party at my sister Kerrie's house, right after I had separated with Josie. That was a miserable experience.
The big problem is my sister Laurie. Laurie is eleven months younger than I am--my Irish twin--and she's basically spent her entire life regretting the fact that eleven months before she was born, I didn't come out of the womb stillborn.
Laurie and I are not only Irish twins, we're polar opposites. Growing up, where I was an introvert and bookish, she was an extrovert and athletic. She starting drinking in junior high and joined AA at twenty, where I didn't have my first drink until I was around 18. I was always called the "smart one," while she was always the rebel. And, she turned out to be a lesbian, and I turned out to be gay.
Given that last item, you'd think that we might actually have something of a common bond. But quite honestly, except for a brief period of time shortly after college, our entire existance has been one of mutual hatred and loathing.
Quite frankly, the woman thinks I'm a freak, and has spent her entire life trying to tear me down. Nothing I've ever done has ever been any good. Despite the fact that I've had the lead in innumerable musicals and participated in dozens of choral events, often as soloist, she has said on several occasions that I have a terrible voice. Despite the fact that I've built my life on my writing ability, she thinks I'm not much of a writer. When I was married to Josie, she would point out with condescending amusement that I lived a Donna Reed existance. And at the point in my life where a kind word would have really gone a long way, I received...silence.
Basically, we've played out the same exact roles that we established as children, into our adult years. Laurie resents the fact that I'm the oldest, even though it's never gotten me anything more than a few months as the only child and a few stray pieces of baked stuffed shrimp ever now and then as a child. For my part, I resent the fact that she's done everything she can to make me feel isolated whenever she's around, and that she made my life a living hell growing up.
Despite this long history that will probably continue repeating itself until the day that we die, this Christmas, my father desperately wanted to gather all the kids together, especially, I think, for Tommy, who's going through a tough time of it with his recent separation. And so, he paid to fly Laurie home for Christmas, and insisted that we get together, just the "nuclear family," for an uber-expensive dinner, a few days before Christmas eve. Yesterday.
I knew that I was in trouble the minute I arrived into our private room, and realized that Dad had laid out the family table exactly as it had been growing up: Mom at one end, Dad at the other. I sat at Dad's left, Tommy to his right. Laurie sat at Mom's left, Kerrie to her right. Do you sense a pattern, here?
I remember that kitchen table. I remember the dinners, the fights, the tears that were spilled. I remember the laughter. I remember Tommy spilling his drink during each meal, and Kerrie with her blanket, reaching over to grab food and dribbling bits of supper into my drink. I remember Laurie arguing over going out with friends, I remember wishing I could be back in my room to draw cartoons. I remember mooning over certain boys.
But now, we were sitting at a different table, in a restaurant, not in a sixties-era ranch-style house. The old house had been sold, years ago.
I walked around the table, shaking hands and hugging Kerrie and Mom. My mother gave me a look to go over and hug Laurie, too, and so I awkwardly moved to her and squeezed her on the shoulder. "How are you doing?" I asked.
We traded small talk, all through dinner. I even tried to start up a conversation with my sister. "How was your flight?" I asked.
"Good," she said. Then, she moved onto discussion with Kerrie and Tommy about plans to go to Edaville railroad the next day.
It reminded me of what had bothered me about our last gathering, during the summer of my discontent. Laurie had done the same exact thing, that time, too--basically planned outings and family trips without including me or my family. What had bothered me so much about it at the time was that it had been done with me right there, in plain view, at a time where I had desperately needed to be included in stuff, needed validation. And so, I had...well, I flipped out.
After dinner, Dad reached into his pocket. "I have a pre-Christmas present for everyone," he said. "It's not often that we gather together as a group, and I'm so glad that Laurie flew here to be with us, to spend some time with the family, especially Tommy," he said. "In honor of this occasion, I wanted to give you all something special." And he pulled out four envelopes, filled with cash.
It was a really nice gesture...and, of course, the money really helps. I felt so grateful for my father, who has worked so hard to be fair and to support all four of his children. Planning this party, flying Laurie in, planning a pre-Christmas gift, when we're going to get so many other gifts on Christmas eve...he's truly an amazing man, and has so many qualities that I wish I could emulate and learn from.
Mom got up to cry in the bathroom, and we all basked in the glow of the moment for a while.
And then, at that point, Laurie, Kerrie, and Tommy started making plans for attending midnight mass on Christmas eve and sleeping over Tommy's house. It's another something that I've never been invited to.
And I decided that, in that moment, rather than getting angry, I would simply speak up.
"Hey guys," I said. "I just want to say something, and I really don't mean it to be a jerk or anything. It's just something that's always bothered me, and last time we got together, I freaked, and I'd rather avoid that this time around. I just feel bad you make plans in front of me that I'm not invited to, and I wish that you not do it, if you don't mind."
"But you have your family, Teddy," said Kerrie. "That's why you're never invited."
"Oh, I know," I said. "But that still doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt my feelings."
"Well, at least you're saying something, instead of being passive aggressive," said Laurie, in a cold voice.
Later on, Tommy invited me to his house on Christmas eve. I can't go, but I thanked him for the invitation.
I don't know. I don't think I'm unhappy about saying anything. I certainly don't regret it. I wish it hadn't been brought up right after Dad's gift, but it was. However, I didn't say anything in anger. I carefully chose my words, and tried to express my point of view calmly, without emotion.
It's funny...a few hours before the dinner, Corb and I traveled to a place called Seven Arrows Herb Farm, to buy a gift for his mother. Seven Arrows is a place that holds a special place in my heart. I've directed several plays there, and have had fascinating, insightful conversations with the owners, Judy and Michel Marcellot. (In fact, they have a wonderful book out called "Sacred Gardens," that you can buy mostly everywhere: http://www.schifferbooks.com/newschiffer/book_template.php?isbn=9780764327247)
The minute I saw Judy, we started into a long conversation, even though I haven't seen her in years. She made me feel welcome, sat me down, offered me tea, and we chatted for about an hour.
During the conversation, Judy, out of nowhere, started talking about her family, and the problems she has with certain of her family members. "But you know what, Ted?" she said. "I've learned that you choose your real family in other ways, beyond blood ties."
I think that conversation gave me courage to go into last night, and allowed me the strength to offer up something that's bothered me for years. And who knows? Maybe it will help, some day in the future.
Because the other piece of it is that, truth be told, our nuclear family really isn't that bad. Sure, Laurie may treat me with a certain amount of disdain, and wishes I had been stillborn at birth. Frankly, though, it could be a lot worse.
Yes, we still have certain roles that we assume whenever we get together, like our places at the family table. But, when you right down to it, we're all basically good, decent people, and we've all accomplished a lot in life.
That's a lot to bring to a table.
The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but
of respect and joy in each other's life.
Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.
Richard Bach, Illusions, borrowed from fitfool