I promise you’ll be happy/And even if you’re not/There’s more to life than that/Don’t ask me what
Happy day-after-Thanksgiving. Today I’m trying to keep my head down, my wallet secreted, and my eyes off any and all commentary devoted to either a) how to find the best deals on Black Friday and where to go for them and when, or b) why trying to find the best deals on Black Friday and go get them makes you a superficial materialist American with a perverse sense of the significance of holidays and family. I’m not going shopping. Nor do I blame those who are; I just don’t have the resilience for it. I hate going shopping around the holidays enough without doing so crunched between thousands of other people who are trying to buy the exact same thing, preferably before I can get my hands on it.
I spent my Thanksgiving in a church. No, not a church service– a church basement, where my father’s side of the family has been gathering every year to have dinner and reunite. He has three brothers and two sisters, all with their own families, so that can be a lot of reuniting indeed. Their father, who used to preside over these gatherings, was buried in the graveyard immediately outside of the church in 1998 along with his wife who died in 1966, his second wife who died shortly after he did, and a host of more distant relatives and relatives of relatives with the same German last names repeating and repeating, people whose images can be found in the wall-mounted registry of confirmations performed in that church, located in the basement. There, their faces stare unsmiling in black and white images dating back to the 1920’s. Parchment-pale or ruddy (I’d imagine) skin, relentlessly coiffed hair, pressed clothing, blunt expressions which read: Here we are. Experiencing a very different life, with very different expectations. Family is, in large part, about expectations. Those expectations may change, but their existence does not.
I look at these pictures every time I’m there– my attendance has been patchy. I haven’t always been the most diligent of daughters/cousins/nieces/granddaughters/aunts. But one of the things you realize as you’re growing up is the fact that expectations don’t exist purely as a means for your family to control you– yeah, it sure looked like that, didn’t it? It’s actually to protect them. From insecurity, confusion, weakness, and doubt. Not knowing where they stand. Not knowing where you stand. Not knowing how to relate to you. Not being sure whether cousin Matt got married or is just dating, or has children or not, or is even interested in women– he might be gay! How are we supposed to keep track of peoples’ spouses if we can’t even remember what gender they’re supposed to be?! (From that perspective you’d think people in favor of “traditional” families would just bite the bullet and support gay marriage, because at least that’s a marriage. You can put that on the family tree, and these days there’s even a sporting chance that it will produce children, and they can go on the family tree.)
Family traditions are a time-honored way of fixing expectations so that family members have ways to deal with each other’s existence. The care and attachment they feel for each other may be authentic, but it isn’t always easy to know how to relate to the people rather ironically called your relatives, especially if there are considerable age gaps involved, and traditions are a form of bridge-building. Or rather, they’re like a scaffolding on which bridges can be built, if you’re interested. You don’t have to– you may not even need a bridge. But if you do, at least you don’t have to invent the concept of “bridge” from scratch in order to communicate something important to your family. People start traditions because they see a need to build that scaffolding, and imagine that future family members will as well.
Now wait, you might say– didn’t you just recently bag on tradition pretty hard? Yes, yes I did. But in doing so, what I was saying is that being a tradition doesn’t add truth or value to something. Being “traditional” doesn’t make something meaningful– it’s a reflection of something being meaningful to some people. A sign that they found it of use for their communicative purposes. Their purposes, which makes it all too obvious what the problem is in trying to apply it to your purposes. Trying to enforce your traditions on someone else is like trying to force them to eat the same thing for dinner that you do– which is itself a tradition, of course– and yet there’s no shortage of people who not only find it entirely fitting to do so but refer to themselves as “traditional,” as if they own the very concept of tradition and it’s not possible that others have different, conflicting traditions which they take just as seriously and are just as deserving of consideration. You aren’t differently traditioned; this approach insists, you are non-traditioned. You are without tradition. Just as atheists are people of non-belief and people with secular ethics people of non-ethics. Not just different; lacking. If you don’t do things like we do, you don’t do them at all…according to us.
Yes, that’s the point of view of which I’m not fond.
But here’s the thing– a general contempt for tradition, while tempting (especially when you’re in your late teens/early 20’s) can be read, with some degree of accuracy and understandable license, as a contempt for bridge-building. If your relatives can only speak wedding/funeral/reunion/baby shower/confirmation and you don’t speak any of those, it is in a certain sense like refusing to communicate with them at all. And even the most rebellious of us generally don’t want to form a new identity for ourselves out of whole cloth. We want someone to come from, a people to claim. Being exiled might not be practiced or even functionally possible in modern Western countries, but being estranged is a raw, agonizing thing that (almost) nobody really wants, regardless of how much of a show they put on which says otherwise. We’d rather love and be loved by our families, no matter what differences there are and how enormous they might be.
I recognize how extraordinarily lucky I am, because I have an amazing family. I don’t want to sound preachy or naive– when people talk about their family gatherings I am reminded of how comparatively casual, accepting, and jovial ours are. My older brother, sister-in-law, and their son couldn’t make it up to Thanksgiving this year because of timing and distance and another baby on the way, and they have been dearly missed. Not all families are fortunate to have the kind of relationships that make such missing possible, and I don’t want to suggest that it’s somehow their fault. Or that in my family, everything is understood, tempers are never strained, and so on. Not the case.
Still. It’s important. It’s okay for it to be important.