Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The family experiement

Travel. Living with strangers. Moving to college. Experimenting with new foods. These things give one an exposure to new people and situations, and help you think about where you came from in a new way.

A few weeks ago, when I was gathered with my roommates around the breakfast table, as has become our weekly practice, we shared Thanksgiving and holiday traditions in our families. Just a week earlier, at another table, I had been asked to share the same thing. And I recall feeling like I had very little to say.

As my friends talked about generation-long traditions of cutting down trees with the whole family, making candy and special Christmas treats, I started to think about my own family.

There was grade school, when mom used to make her mother's Christmas tearing to distribute to our neighbors and our school teachers, which somehow always seemed to turn out burned on the outside and undercooked on the inside, and left our kitchen looking something like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Thank goodness we stopped this before high school - as I recall I had 8 different teachers...

One year, my dad said, "Maybe this is the year we shouldn't make the tearing anymore..."

Then there is the yearly spaghetti pie we have on Christmas Eve. This hallowed tradition was birthed the first year we were a "family" (Dad, Mom, and little Amanda), when my parents decided that whatever we had that year would be the meal we would have every year. They looked around the house and decided we'd make do with what we had, and go across the street to the Town & Country grocery store to get the cottage cheese we needed for spaghetti pie. We've been eating it - in candlelight, before the Christmas Eve service - every year since.

The more I reflect, the more it seems evident to me that our family's history is a story of experiments, a sort of make-do-with-our-resources, eat-graham-cracker-cereal-because-we-ran-out-of-Cheerios sort of thing. I remember my dad saying "well, I've never done this before" and "we'll have to just wait and see" a lot. Like the fiasco that revolved around Mr. VandenBerg's 7th grade "passport project", involving my parents and me staying up until 2am trying to make a travel brochure and passport to Great Britain; my dad cutting himself and bleeding on the passport in the process. (And someone telling me at school the next day I might get marked down for it). Then there are many memories of pumpkins being carved on our kitchen table at 5pm on Halloween night, while my mom was trying to create some make-shift costume in the other room, and the decorations never seemed to find their ways out of the box. Or the vacation we took to Vermont, via Canada, from which I remember little save a bird flying into our windshield. Or eating Chinese food in Scotland. Or getting lost in Normandy and yours truly being forced to stand in line next to a 300lb Frenchman in nothing more than a speedo just to buy the other three some ice cream in the 120-degree weather. Or buying a Christmas tree on the 23rd of December and looking out my window in the backseat to see not snow but green needles. ("Dad? Is the Christmas tree supposed to be outside my window?") becuase he never was skilled at tying things to car roofs...

Maybe this sense of experiementation comes from being the oldest. Maybe it all seems normal to Jesse. Or maybe it's because there aren't a lot of young couples that get married and have a family just after one of them has a stroke. Maybe our family is just that: a grand experiment.

Sometimes this makes me feel cheated, as if I missed out on the completeness that other families have; unified in their traditions and secure in their knowledge of the way things should be. But then I think that our recognition of ignorance might make us more open to change, or maybe offer God more places to show up. Maybe that's why we're all moving. It's just the next chapter in our big family experiment.

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