Tezza (not her real name) was born in the Balkans 90 years ago. When she came to this country, she brought with her a way of life rooted in extended family. Slavic women are known for putting family first. They are fiercely loving and protective – and usually just as fiercely outspoken, no matter the consequences. Tezza, though she tries to temper her comments, rarely edits her words. The result? Her family – five children, numerous grandchildren, several great-grandchildren, and a handful of great-great-grandchildren – have grown distant from her over the years. Comments like “you never come see me, where you been, why you no come no more” suggest “loser relative” status and have eroded the matriarchal deference her large family once accorded her.
There is distress, too, over Tezza’s aches and pains, and her illnesses, as well as the family that’s deserted her. She catalogues these things endlessly – in case they’ve forgotten. It’s as if saying it one more time might make someone acknowledge her suffering, might make someone take time to care.
The lives of a lot of people, older ones in particular, are filtered through their families and dependent on their general health. Tezza’s conversation always revolves around family –how important they are to her, how much she misses seeing them. She never learned to drive, so she must wait for them to come to her. She longs for the way things used to be; she’s lonely, and she’s not well. Of those things, the only one I can ameliorate a little is the loneliness. But doing so is not always easy with most women like her.
Tezza called a few nights ago to tell me she’s been getting dizzy and falling, without warning, over the past few months. Previous falls resulted in bad bruises and some blood, but last week the paramedics took her to the hospital. She’d broken three ribs. She was taped up and sent home where there is no one to take care of her except Katrine, her oldest daughter, who drops in once a day now, briefly, to check on her. But Katrine’s husband is ill, too, and Katrine can’t stay long. And her other family? “Dey don’ care. Dey don’ come see me.” Tezza is terrified to even get up off the sofa for fear she’ll fall again. “I call dem but dey don’ answer. Nobody care, nobody come.”
Why do we find it so hard to get along with family members but so easy to accommodate friends? So hard to overlook what we perceive as our family’s slights, injuries, or weaknesses, yet ignore those things in other people we know? Why do we find it easier to be kinder to our friends than to our family? We won’t say squat to our friends; we overlook everything. But if it’s a family member, we make excuses, rationalize our neglect, blame the other individual. And sometimes, sometimes we say nothing at all – ironically, often the most hurtful.
We don’t get to choose our family, but we don’t have to love them either, just because we’re related. We don’t even have to like them. But we do need to be kind to them, include them in our lives, even if only in a minimal way. We must let them know that on some level we do care, if only for the blood ties that bind us. We need to do this for our own sakes, if not for theirs. If we can’t at least do that much, we are not deserving of the families we might have wished we’d had.
So many holiday movies are “feel good” stories, portraits of family harmony and love that shout “ah, perfection, why isn’t ours like that.” No grudges, no stress. But this bliss isn’t mirrored in many real families. Real families aren’t perfect. A Christmas Carol depicts an irascible old miser named Scrooge who “Bah-Humbugs” Christmas until his end-of-film redemption that turns him into an almost giddy philanthropist and good-deed-doer. A Miracle on 34th Street gives us, as well as a young Natalie
Wood, something to believe in, in spite of the naysayers. Then there’s The Gathering, a more realistic portrait of family life. It offers, however, the arguing-all-the-time-grudge-carrying-nasty-to-each-other-but-finding-forgiveness-at-the-end family, achieving a happy (spoiler alert: but sad when the father dies) ending – unlike so many in real life. We watch it because that ending is what we all hope for. It reminds me of the obituary of an old friend of mine. One of his surviving children was listed as his “estranged son”. Differences obviously left unresolved, as he was publicly singled out and punished – the sad portrait of real life.
We members of the Family of Man have much in common, including similar weaknesses. We fail to overlook. We fail to forgive. We fail to extend a hand in love or even one in friendship. We choose the wrong words and wield them with vengeance in our hearts. We choose words that punish. And we aim to strike the first blow.
We do these things out of anger and pain, out of sense of not belonging when we so desperately want to.
The holidays are upon us again, making it even more difficult to get along because of the stress their happy expectations engender – their this-is-the-way-it’s-supposed-to-be-so-don’t-disappoint-yourselves-or-the-rest-of-us. We are supposed to be happy. Instead, many families will be stressed, angry, resentful, or depressed this holiday season – and for some, this won’t be the first holiday they’ve spent this way.
Keep your mouth shut and put on a happy face. Then pass the potatoes.
If we could only change our words we might be able to affect a change in our worlds, and maybe someone else’s. We have to start somewhere.
This Thanksgiving make a positive contribution in the life of someone who means something to you – or someone who should. Share something good in you with someone else who needs it, even if you can’t see that need.
We don’t have to be cheerful or laughing, or even all that happy – getting through this season without a blowout will be enough for now. Find the inner peace only possible when you let go of the past – Think about your friends, and if necessary, pretend that’s who your relatives are.