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The Family Reunion

23

July 20, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

ecastro/Flickr

ecastro/Flickr

My father, at 86, has been retired now longer than he was an elementary school principal.

But he was most definitely the principal of our family reunion, and its chief architect. When his children grew up, moved away, and started families of their own, that reunion became a pilgrimage of sorts, an arrangement of families into a hierarchy, with a single patriarchal star at the top.

At least that was the plan.

I hated the games.

Oh, I didn’t mind guessing how many M&Ms were in a jar. But I never figured out what I was doing right – or wrong – in the BB gun shoot. Sometimes I hit the coffee can, sometimes the bushes.

Then there were the team sports – bocce ball, volleyball, ping pong. We couldn’t just play these when people wanted to: we had to have tournaments.

My husband was also an introverted academic, awkward at sports.

That was one of the reasons I married him. To create a family I belonged in better. At least that was the plan. He disliked the games as well. But it was the goal-setting at the business meeting he hated most.

What? Your family reunion doesn’t have a business meeting? Or goal-setting? Is that allowed?

The business meeting was on Saturday night, after the games had all been played.

Often we’d sit out back, on the screened in porch. My father has a strong belief in setting goals to improve oneself, and a pretty good idea where other people need improvement. “You know what your problem is?” was a common rhetorical question in my house. “You’re not open to a little constructive criticism.” “You know what your problem is? You have a lousy personality.”

As a teenager, it was this sort of constructive criticism that made my face hot and my ears burn, my feet stomp up to my room and my pitching arm slam the door – thus proving his point. I had put a thousand miles between myself and my family to improve myself on my own terms. The reunion erased that buffer zone.

Perhaps I should have gone to the Baker Family Reunion instead...

Perhaps I should have gone to the Baker Family Reunion instead…

At the business meeting, we reviewed old minutes and recognized accomplishments.

The family as a whole voted on whether we had met our previous year’s goals. Then it was time to make new ones. Each person was responsible for their own – though as the alcohol flowed, there was quite a bit of suggesting goals and amendments to goals – not just on my father’s part. The whole family got into the act.

In 1986 my father’s goal was to be more pleasant and less grouchy, and to never say phrases like “it’s none of my business, but” or “if it was me, I’d…” Somebody amended that one. My mother’s goal in 1988 was “to not ramble on and to not hesitate when she talks.”

The sort of hazing that my family practiced drove my husband up a wall.

His own family was big on praise – a “mutual appreciation society,” my father-in-law once joked. That didn’t mean they weren’t competitive. But it came out in very different ways, ways he knew how to handle. Here he was in foreign territory. And I could not help him.

I felt for him, but – though I’m not sure I could have told you this at the time – I was also annoyed. I had enough trouble dealing with my own feelings about my father. My husband was supposed to protect me from them, not make matters worse.

For months before the reunion he would worry about what his goal would be.

About whether his progress on last year’s goal would get a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.” Not that he cared, of course. His goal in 1989, the year our son was born, was to publish two articles. This was to prepare him for graduate school. My goal was to get everybody’s birthday card out on time. That was the kind of goal my family understood. The minutes record that my husband “failed miserably, totally, utterly and without excuse” at his goal. Quite likely these were his exact words.

That year he won the BB shoot.

daisy red ryder

After the business meeting – and more drinking of beer – the discussion often took a serious turn.

My family would attempt to resolve such difficult questions as whether Pete Rose should be allowed in the hall of fame and what to do with Jeffrey Dahmer. My husband’s family, with its generations of Episcopal clergymen, had higher quality conversations around ethics and morality; our family discussions, frankly, embarrassed me.

The year my husband did not make his goal, the topic was Operation Desert Storm. The Persian Gulf War – which my father was against. He had seen the interests of Big Oil kill the sons and daughters of Americans, and he was not fooled.

My youngest uncle worked for Exxon. So the conversation was lively, to say the least.

Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you can brain your opponent with the Bible.

That’s why it’s such a popular book.

At one point my father, his voice booming as if God was speaking to Moses over the school intercom, announced that “The Bible says ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”

My husband had spent three years in seminary. He had won awards in Hebrew, and in Greek. He had yet to publish two articles, but he knew his stuff.

“Actually, the more accurate translation is ‘Thou shalt do no murder.’ Which begs the question.”

It had been a long hot day. I had spent it dealing with sticky, napless children hyped up on Fourth of July rocket popsicles. But my whole body tensed at that moment. And all the sideline conversations suddenly stopped.

“Are you saying my Catholic Bible is wrong?”

My father is a Catholic convert. That’s the worst kind to mess with.

“I’m saying there are more accurate translations.” There was just the slightest hint of a sneer at the corner of my husband’s lips. I was not the only one who saw it.

“You’re full of shit,” my father said.

I saw my husband’s face flush, and then grow pale. Inside his brain I knew every neuron was firing at once, like lights on an exploding Christmas tree.

“That may be,” his mouth said. But his eyes said something else.

bible-study

23 thoughts on “The Family Reunion

  1. woodbeez48 says:

    A fantastic post, Paula! I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at any of those goal setting meetings ;) I felt like my own family wasn’t half as bad after reading that…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Julie. This was over twenty years ago, and things are rather different now. For a few years we didn’t set any goals, and now everybody seems to want to do it again – especially the grandchildren. The spirit of the thing seems to have changed. Of course we’re also two inlaws down…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Annecdotist says:

    Hey, Paula, when I studied organisational psychology I read stuff about the family being a kind of business, but never came across anything that took it to these lengths. Sounds a load of fun if you don’t have to be there! Another fabulous post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. My daughter took a course on family dynamics and she often points out similarities to me between dysfunctional families and dysfunctional workplace dynamics. I hadn’t thought of it working both ways. Although marriage is certainly an economic contract in addition to its other reasons for being, and that’s a function couples in love sometimes ignore at their peril. Thanks for stopping by in the midst of your blog tour!

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  3. This is awful (and interesting) and I apologize but you have a humorous way of relating things so it was also kind of funny. “That’s why it’s such a popular book.” and “That may be.” :-) Great post.

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    • I pride myself on being awful interesting. ;-) Actually I hope it was a little funny, without that funny being at the expense of my father or my ex-husband. I was not entirely happy with the piece, and almost did not publish it. At some point I may explore the reasons why.

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  4. Judith Post says:

    Wow! Our reunions were just boring, and now I’m grateful:)

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  5. TanGental says:

    Wow, I can’t wait for the film of this. Jason Robarts as your dad I think. Sorry, Paula, this must have been traumatic at the time, trying to keep a family equilibrium but it is both funny and scary at the same time. Business meetings and settling goals! That is a family dynamic to die for in many sense of that phrase.

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    • The more I learn about my dad as he gets older, the more I understand the reasons for that dynamic, Geoff – and I don’t think I’d describe it as traumatic, which to me implies a shock to the system. Although for inlaws that might be an apt description! Figuring out the operating instructions for the family you marry into can be a very tricky business.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Don’t I know it. My future parents in law holidayed where I lived while their daughter, my girlfriend of 4 months from university stayed at home working. ‘They’d love to meet you.’ ‘Fine.’ I met them in the lounge of their old fashioned hotel – this was 1977 so very old fashioned. After no more than 20 minutes of pleasantries, mostly her dad and me, her mother said in a lull, ‘don’t think you can steal her from us, you know.’ I looked at her father who sort of laughed nervously so I did as well. Her mother didn’t. I convinced myself it was a joke. 39 years later I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.

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      • Well after 39 years, I’d say you did a pretty good job of borrowing her. ;-)

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        still on probation…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. jan says:

    Politics and religion are too things that should definitely be banned from family reunions but that will never happen, even if congress enacts legislation and warning labels are posted at the front door! So sorry – it sounded painful!

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    • I know. And I’ve noticed that my dad is more inclined to those discussions rather than less these days, as with my mom he has very little intellectual stimulation, and arguing is almost good for him. It really upsets my mother though. So we could be in for a bumpy ride this weekend.

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      • Diana says:

        Oh Paula, that “it really upsets my mother” comment rang a really loud bell for me! And I shudder to think what your weekend was like. Or your mom’s for that matter. I trust you both survived, and your dad as well. Thanks for sharing your family reunion story. I am beyond grateful that my family didn’t have the goal-setting and business meeting format (and in fact don’t really have family reunions, which I rather like the sound of).

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  7. DeeScribes says:

    Our family reunions did not – do not – include a meeting and goal setting segment thank goodness. But, my parents also planned our annual event for the first thirty years of my life. Family dynamics provide so much fodder for stories, and I’m so appreciative of your sharing this one with us.

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  8. Anita Stout says:

    I have husband like that – also a theology academic and pastor and don’t even get me started on history. I love his mind. How and when he uses all that pent up knowledge leaves me stammering at times however. :)

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  9. […] family reunion I wrote about last week has now come and gone. It was a very different affair from the old days, though we still have a business meeting. Much of that was dedicated to celebrating my […]

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  10. […] this post. The first post in the series was quotations on family – I had just returned from my family reunion – and the second post on aging. As regular readers will know, my mother was diagnosed with […]

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  11. […] You are perfectly right. I HAVE used this picture (courtesy ecastro/Flicker) before. […]

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