I get the call and immediately know the direction my day is headed. The call explaining that I have been designated the point of contact on a family member’s dossier because he has been summoned to court and has yet to appear. Immediately, I am taken back to the days I wore sparkly dresses in which I could twirl and patent leather shoes that were scuffed and too tight. I am taken back to the times we all fit around a dinner table in a house that couldn’t fit our dreams. The days my mother could throw a handful of flour and some water in a bowl but could never make the formula pliable; it was either too thick or too thin but it would never hold.
See, I don’t have memories of large feasts around a dinner table, but I do know a thing or two about dysfunction. I can tell you about being the odd one out when I both yearned for and dreaded togetherness at a table. I know about dreaming too large and delusions of peace. I know that creativity and imagination is not always inherited. And I also know a thing or two about loss. I know how it feels to see a family dismantle and crumble before my eyes and I know how it feels to never eat together around a table again. If I could go back, there is plenty I would tell the teenage girl about how to deal with those dinners. Since, I can’t I will offer up my take on how to deal with any upcoming and potentially dysfunctional dinners that may already be haunting your sleep.
Unlike my other posts which provide unsolicited advice with lists of to-dos in sequence, this one comes with only one step: acceptance.
When you are cooped up around a table, both out of love and obligation- first know yourself, so that you can accept yourself. I had no idea who I was at fifteen, I am just beginning to figure that out now fifteen years later. All I wanted at those dinners was the permission to be myself. I wanted to be allowed to laugh as hard as I wanted, without reproof. I wanted permission to scream obscenities at the top of my lungs, without censorship. And I wanted permission to love as hard as I could, without conditions. I was denied all three. Albeit, I also never demanded it. I didn’t know my voice then, I couldn’t hear it yet. So when I was scolded, instructed, and rejected I accepted it as the norm because that was how good girls were supposed to behave. If I knew then that it would have made me happy, I would have misbehaved at every single dinner. Wearing blue eye-shadow and peeling black nail polish, I would have reveled in the topics of conversations that made others uncomfortable to the point of truth. And I would have scram the truth out loud to the point of comfort.
As an adult, it helps to bring a guest who understands you (oftentimes better than you understand yourself). So if you have a best friend, a lover, or a quirky coworker who really sees you for who you are at the core of your being, bring them to dinner. Make no apologies for the tackiness of an uninvited guest and give no explanations about who or what they are to you. If your family is uncomfortable in their presence, it is only because it is painful for them to admit that someone from a different bloodline can accept you to the point of bringing out the best in you and not the worse. Just bring them and sit by them. Allow your guest to speak for you when the conversations are too difficult and allow them to hold your hand in silence when the conversations are subtle. Let them bring out the youest parts of you and at the end of the night, give them a proper “thank you” for it.
For you to truly get past the dysfunction, however, you must also accept them. Accept your family members for who they are rather than mourn for who they aren’t. Do not judge the mistakes from their past and do not condemn their futures. Simply ignore the choices they make for this particular moment in time. Understand that silence does not mean condoning the things you disagree with, it simply means respect. Accept that your children will want to wear something you do not particularly approve of and will use their cell phones rather than indulge you in conversation. Accept that your siblings each play a role in your family, even if the role is unconventional and hardly liked. Accept that patriarchs and matriarchs have the freedom to err every now and then too. Don’t get caught up in the investigations of love affairs or the solving of crimes. Don’t bring a record of monies owed or a list of favors that are pending. Leave those on the doormat when you come in, and realize that you will not feel better by making a doormat out of someone else.
Instead, know that the moments of joy to ensue cannot be erased and will not be repeated. You have those little capsules in time to truly enjoy the craziness that ties you together rather than dwell on the madness that pulls you apart. The things our families do can hurt us, diminish our joy, and rob us of happiness. If we let it. But who we decide to be in in their presence can empower. So be you.