The lack of emotional security of our American young people is due, I believe, to their isolation from the larger family unit. No two people – no mere father and mother – as I have often said, are enough to provide emotional security for a child. He needs to feel himself one in a world of kinfolk, persons of variety in age and temperament, and yet allied to himself by an indissoluble bond which he cannot break if he could, for nature has welded him into it before he was born. ~Pearl S. Buck
The validity of the above quote was made clear to me during our last family reunion weekend as I watched my children visit with their relatives. It was our annual pilgrimage to Muskoka, where about 20 of us get together for a weekend of fun and catching up. The rest of the year we are scattered between 5 different cities in two countries and rarely correspond, so this is a much anticipated visit. We all descend on the cottage owned by my Dad’s nephew and his wife, who one weekend every summer play host to an ever-growing group of fridge-emptying friendlies. My kids talk about this trip all year, and it is always interesting to me to see how they act when there.
These 3 children, who at home leave toys and clothes on the floor, dishes in the sink, and groan and complain every time they are asked to do something, turn into Martha Stewart wanna-be’s as soon as they finish hugging “Auntie Gail.” They want to help cook. They want to set the table. They can’t wait to pass around dessert. They fight for the right to fold blankets and rearrange throw pillows. They help clean up, they tidy their room, they pick up their swimming toys…there wasn’t a single whine, complaint or moan out of any of them the entire three days. I didn’t hear a single “I’m booooorrreeddd.” There weren’t even any problems on the three hour drive there. In addition to my girls, their two cousins were there as well, and there was no arguing or pestering from anyone. Not even from Mikaela, who has recently perfected the art of pushing her sisters’ buttons for no reason other than to experience the pleasure of watching them become incoherent with frustration.
It is gratifying to see that my children have nice manners, are friendly and helpful and pleasant to be around. Everyone told Steve and I several times that they were delightful children, well behaved and a pleasure to spend time with. Every parent wants to hear that. But what I want to know is, where did those children go after we left?
We were not 5 minutes down the road when they started to bicker:
“Stop touching me!”
“Mom, where can I put this pillow – it’s making me hot.” And my favorite:
“MOM – Mikaela just licked my foot!”
They fussed and twitched and bickered for the hour and a half it took to get to Barrie. They behaved reasonably well at dinner, and then back in the car we got and they were at it again.
“Madeline has her foot in my face!”
It was a long drive home.
What I see on these annual visits is children blossoming under the attention they are given. They have a new audience who are eager to hear their stories, marvel at their talents and admire their individual styles. Unlike their parents, they aren’t punch drunk from trying to give everyone equal time and attention 24/7. They have the time to chat, to show interest. And most importantly, they bring a different viewpoint and their own personal experience to their interactions with my kids. My girls have conversations they might otherwise not have had, learn things I might not be able to teach them, and get a chance to hear different perspectives on the little happenings in their lives. Their place in this family is very important to them. They spent the first half hour of the drive home asking me exactly how they were related to everyone; who was a cousin, who was an uncle. If Kevin was Poppa’s nephew, then what was he to them? If Gail was his wife, what did that make her to them? It is so important to them to figure out where they belong in the familial scheme of things.
When I was growing up I only saw this side of my family once, maybe twice a year. I guess the visits were infrequent because they were a two hour drive away, but the effect of such infrequent visiting was that my relatives were only a few steps removed from being strangers. When I was young the visits were uncomfortable for me; I was shy and barely knew my aunt and uncle, and it always took me some time to warm up to them again, and my cousins. Their routines were foreign to me. I remember staying with them on my own once and my uncle almost gave me a heart attack at dinner by asking me if I’d like to say grace – my parents didn’t say grace. And of course, just when we were starting to have fun, it was time to go. Months would go by before the next visit and then I’d have start all over again. Fortunately my kids don’t suffer from my social anxiety; they can pick up right where they left off the year before.
I am looking forward to the next reunion, although it will be somewhat bittersweet as both my dad and my Uncle Robin have passed away. It’s a shame we only enjoy each other’s company 2 days out of 365. Society may have advanced enormously over the last 150 years, but when it comes to maintaining family ties, I think our ancestors were better off.