“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” -George Burns
There’s a bit of frenzied summer travel planning happening in these here parts.
For the last couple of weeks each of us have been on travel sites making bookings for air travel, hotel rooms, and airport shuttle services. Except for coordinating the calendar dates with one another, everything has been done separately. Gorgeous and I made a decision that it would be best to have a “divide and conquer” approach for visiting family this year. So we’re going solo to selectively cover more ground than if we traveled together.
She has two trips planned, and I have one. It’s not the way either of us would prefer to do it, but such are the compromises that you sometimes make when you live far away from dear ones.
I moved away from my family in Michigan during the summer of 1983. I vowed to myself in an unspoken, self-affirmation that while I would always go back to visit, I just couldn’t live there permanently any longer.
First and foremost was a need to escape the harsh and brutal winters which had tormented me for far too long as a young boy. I still remember those early November nights, laying in bed under two layers of blankets, while listening to my parents discuss whether it was too early to switch on the furnace. “Good G-d,” I would think to myself. “Just turn the freakin’ thing on already, will ya?!”
Of course, I didn’t say “freakin'” because that word really wasn’t said back then. We did say “bogue” quite a bit, though. It was a slang form of the word “bogus.” However, in my house using it was considered crude and uncouth, and so I refrained from even using it at school for fear that I might accidentally blurt it out at home. Doing so would initiate a discourse on proper speaking, followed by an even longer diatribe about the unseemly fashion in which young people were now using the English language. The lectures would have warmed the cockles of Edwin Newman and William Safire’s hearts, but I tried my best to just avoid it. Such were the rhetorical land mines I dodged during my 1970’s adolescence.
Eh, so sorry for the detour. But are you like me about wanting authenticity? I get easily rattled when watching current movies and TV shows that ostensibly take place in the past, but Hollywood writers insist on using contemporary slang in the scripts to appeal to, or keep the attention spans of Gen Xers and beyond. It’s lazy and inaccurate. And come to think of it, it’s also bogue too, man.
So while moving away from the frozen tundra was my number one desire after college, I had other motivations too. I knew instinctively that I also needed the freedom to try out new things and make my own mistakes, privately and away from prying and judgmental eyes and ears of family members.
For instance, after “did you get enough to eat?” and “don’t forget to wear a hat!,” my mother’s most-used phrase was “are you sure?!!!” Well, no, Mom. I’m not actually.
I love you all, but see ya!
And so it’s been this way for pretty much all of my adult life. Whether out of guilt and obligation, or sincere joy and excitement, I have hopped on planes from the many places I’ve lived to go back and be with family and loved ones. I’ve even done so during those dreaded times of harsh weather conditions, all to be a part of milestone birthday celebrations, weddings and anniversaries, sudden accidents and hospitalizations, and sadly, funerals.
It goes without saying that for each visit, I still diabolically calculate the amount of time I know it will take before family members, specifically siblings, start to lose that outer shell of camaraderie and transition to familiarity. Without going into any embarrassing details here (even family can be litigious, you know), I’m pretty sure you all must know and appreciate the intricacies of such a familial dynamic. Watch for the fault lines and careful not to spill on the carpet; I’m speaking metaphorically here, but do feel free to take this as literal advice too.
Families are complicated organisms. All that appears to be fine on the surface usually belies an undercurrent that will become more transparent as minutes turn to hours, and hours turn into days. Or as an old friend of mine likes to describe his own family visits: “We go from the ‘nicely drunk‘ phase where everyone loves one another, to a more caffeine-laden and accusatory ‘now see here!‘ finish.” (Hi, B).
My own family isn’t quite so confrontational. We operate more like a carefully played chess match, with nuanced openings of topics that are sure to elicit differences of long-held opinions. While Social Security is considered to be the “third rail” of American politics, in my family it’s usually any discussion of my parents’ final years. It’s a topic best avoided, but somehow we skirt the very edges of it before someone deftly changes the subject. Rook to Bishop 4.
Thankfully though, there’s still lots of laughter and hugs, plus the retelling of old stories which you haven’t heard since, well, the last visit. There are cousins to see, an aging uncle whom I never seem to call enough during the year, and old school friends if I can possibly sneak in a side stop.
My visits are always brief — three days tops, specifically designed to ensure that I not smell like fish as I take my leave. Nor will any of us become victims of contempt, bred from that common thread of our familiarity. Keep things as light as possible and take your leave with everyone hopefully wanting more, as the show business types might say anyway.
So, I do wish you well on your own family visits this summer. Don’t over eat or drink, watch the kiddies as they light up the sparklers, and avoid all talk about politics unless you’re absolutely sure about everyone around you. Those undercurrents are dangerous.
Until next time…