Wednesday, December 1, 2010

All in the Family

"When we have an open house, we open our doors and we say everyone can come. No one has to bring an invitation, no one has to meet a dress code. We don't go to the door and say, 'you can come, you can't come. You've got a dreadful tie, you stay out. You're the wrong age. You're the wrong color. You're the wrong sexual orientation.' Open house doesn't do that. Complete hospitality doesn't do that. It's just open. It's more than open, it's actually welcoming. It's appreciative of all the people who show up. The basic attitude is that all human beings are fundamentally worthwhile--fundamentally, basically good. We are delighted to see them and we rejoice in their progress in waking up."--Karen Kissel Wegela, PhD, from What Really Helps: Using Mindfulness & Compassionate Presence to Help, Support, and Encourage Others

Every Thanksgiving it's the same. The glossy magazines have pictures of food-styled turkey on their covers, along with teaser headlines like "How to Cook the Perfect Turkey" (most people would settle for a turkey that's "not so dry that it splits in half", a true story I heard from someone recently); "How to Avoid Those Extra Holiday Pounds" (eat Quinoa stew at home then show up to the party full while everyone else is enjoying the cheese board and jumbo shrimp cocktail); and "How to Survive Dinner with the Family."

Growing up an only child, I didn't have big Thanksgiving dinners with assorted relatives and their partners and children. Typically it was just Mom, Dad, and me, our over-sized turkey and our frozen Mrs. Smith's Pumpkin Pie. But Christmas Eve was definitely a family affair, particularly when I was eight and met my grandfather for the first time.

My father is part Sicilian and if any stereotype about Sicilians is true, it's the one where relatives in a dispute proclaim each other "dead", as if the other person's passing is a foregone conclusion and there's no need to even visit the gravesite. I wonder if any other nationality plays this "dead to me" game. The Italians are notorious for it. I think I'm actually "dead" to a second cousin because I didn't invite him to my wedding. I didn't invite him because his son was getting married the next day and I didn't think he could make two weddings in one weekend. (Not that he ever asked me the reason; he just pointedly ignored me at my great-uncle Victor's funeral).

My father and my grandfather were in a dispute over various gripes, one being the fact that my father ran off with my non-Italian mother to marry in California in 1969 (she was 20, he was 19). My grandfather also didn't like that my dad was in touch with my grandmother, who he had divorced years earlier. But an actual death in the family precipitated a phone call between my father and grandfather, which then led to a meeting. My grandfather had softened with age, my father told us later. I'm sure my father missed him. When I imagine it now, I'd be heartbroken if I hadn't seen or spoken to my dad in ten years.

We reunited in my grandfather's apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which was the first time I met my grandfather, a small, almost completely bald man, with a protruding belly like Santa Claus and ash-stained fingers from a lifetime of smoking. For the most part it was a peaceful reunion--except for one outburst of tears from my grandfather's second wife that caused a small ripple of raised voices that soon died down. I think everyone in the room had decided that the past was the past and not to be dwelled on when there were cannolis and espresso to be served.

After that initial visit we went to Bensonhurt regularly, and always on Christmas Eve. Most of the people at the long, clear-plastic covered dining table spoke Italian while my mother and I--who could only understand the occasional phrase, like "Madonna" which sounded like "Ma Doun" to our ears because the Italians like to cut off the last vowel sound, like in "ricotta" and "mozzarella" which became to our ears "rigoat" and "Moozarel".

Despite the fact that my mother and I didn't quite fit in (for instance, we were bookish and disliked fake nails), I enjoyed my big, loud Italian family. I was proud to introduce my Lithuanian-Jewish best friend one Christmas Eve and thrilled when they welcomed her with open arms once they saw how she willingly ate the Octopus appetizer (those tentacles and suckers gave me the creeps--I couldn't even be in the same room with them).

The fact that we were different was something exciting for me, and having this large family that I hadn't known about for the first eight years of my life made me feel special, more interesting. Like so many Americans, I came from a diverse background of not only Sicilians but French people and Swedish. Although I was always close to my parents (as most Onlies are) I was thrilled to have these extended roots, even if they did stretch out in disparate directions.

Now that I've married into another family, I am once again sitting around the table with people I might not have met or gotten to know otherwise. Some of my new relatives are more conservative than I am, or braver, or more handy. I have a nephew, a West Point graduate, who is going to a survivor camp somewhere in the swamp land of the south. He does this willingly, even eagerly. My other nephew just got a job as a fire station dispatcher. I know almost nothing about being a fireman except that I would not be the one entering a burning building but the one fleeing it. And I have an introspective niece who has found her voice doing college plays. Mike and I try to see each production once. If I didn't have family, I wouldn't be sitting in a private college gym 's auditorium, watching 18-21 year-old college students dressed in red face paint, gyrating to loud German death metal (the play was an updated version of Dr. Faustus).

Being open to learning about people who are different than you may be off-putting at first. We all like to gather in our little clans of like-minded souls. But family forces us to expand beyond that limited circle and gain some new perspectives. I'm grateful to have family. Each in their own way, they help me to be a better person.