When you hear the words 'Family Time', what comes to your mind? Is it playing games with your kids or choosing a G-rated film for movie night? Is it outings to the park or cozying up with a book together in the library? Maybe family time to you means holiday meals and Christmas decorations, baking cookies and singing carols. Or, perhaps when you hear that phrase, it stirs up something else.
Maybe in your home, family time is something dreaded – arguments and chaos, someone always battling with another, eggshells being stepped on left and right. Sometimes the thought of so much togetherness can feel overwhelming, like it requires an element of energy that is simply not there; there's not enough time to cook or clean for a day of entertaining relatives, no money to spend on all the missed birthdays for your second cousin's sister's kid, no desire to pull out the nice plates and rehash the same old tired conversations of the goings on of the past year.
If you're the average person, you probably fall somewhere in the middle of relishing and dreading the proverbial Family Time. If you're the mom of your household, you may find yourself dreading it a little bit more than loving it, especially if your kids are young. Especially if your kids are cranky. Especially if your kids need to go back to school immediately.
This past week, I found myself experiencing a variety of Family Time moments. Some of them were lovely. Aaaannnddd some of them weren't. My parents live in Michigan, you see. And each summer, we send the Bigs to Grandma and Papa's house for a week or so by themselves, joined later by my husband and myself and the Littles. Due to some time constraints, we weren't able to send them for quite as long as usual. However, the husband and I found ourselves on the receiving end of some quality alone time for several days! Mamas and Dads out there, you know this alone time… even if it's just a distant memory, you know what I'm talking about. The uninterrupted conversations, the walks taken at a speed where you're not concerned about little legs catching up or shoes needing to be retied, a NON-G movie to watch, and kissing….
Yes, we needed this time. We needed it like we need oxygen and caffeine. Maybe even more. (Well, not more than caffeine… kissing just isn't any fun uncaffeinated, honestly!) It didn't even occur to me to call the kids and tell them goodnight until well after bed. And quite frankly, I didn't mind that I was able to get so lost in this precious time that they were unable to be the center of my world for a few days.
On Wednesday, I took the baby and we made the 6 hour trek to Michigan. (The hubs stayed home in order to get our toddler for his weekend visit.) It was in my childhood home, with 3 of my kids and my brother and my nephew and my parents, that I got swept up in another kind of a family time. This kind was sticky and exhausting and fun and aggravating. You have to understand, when there are so many young children involved, they won't be happy with sitting around the table talking religion and catching up on family news. Oh no. They will only be happy if their family time involves adventures and 24/7 entertainment…. To be provided at the hands of adults, obviously.
So, we took a day and spent it at the local water park. We packed food and snacks and towels and sunscreen. We helped non-swimmers stay afloat and applauded big splashes at the ends of water slides. We waited in the lines and watched the handstands and made sure babies weren't burning in the warm sun. And then, we slept. We slept hard. The next day, we did it all over again. We packed the coolers and strollers and tennis shoes. This time we went to the zoo. We walked for miles and miles and took pictures of animals and goofy-grinned children. We laughed at the small ones as they saw tigers and lions for the very first time, and we listened to the bigger ones complain that they were hot/hungry/bored/sore/ungrateful (wait, that last one may have been what I was complaining about… never mind).
It was at this point that family time started to get hairy. People became grouchy very quickly. So we did some yelling and screaming in public, which is always a sign to those around you that family time has reached it's peak. Those people then look at one another and say, “Well, at least we're not THAT family”… but 5 hours later, they are grouchy and yelling and screaming, too. It's the cycle of family life. We are all that family. I've accepted this. To cope, I reminded myself that the next day the big kids would be going home with my mother-in-law and that I would remain in Michigan for 2 blissful days with my parents, my brother, and the baby. Easy, peasy, family time.
I packed the kids into the car in 2.7 seconds and waved goodbye as I skipped joyously away from the direction that they were traveling. I was excited, you see, because I had plans to take a beautiful trip down memory lane. The baby was napping and the house where I grew up was letting sunlight slip in through the lace curtains. I almost gave in and closed my eyes for a few minutes (hours), but I fought the urge and slowly walked through the house, looking at old memories – the smell of the linen closet, the feel of my old bedroom carpet under my naked toes, the familiar quiet wind that rang the chimes outside. It was like being a child again.
I don't know quite how to explain the love I have for nostalgia. It's sad and sweet, bitter and warm all at the same time. I found myself sitting with happy tears as I leafed through old photo albums that I'd touched countless times over the past 33 years. Smiling faces of those that have been lost looked up at me from the pages of each book. And at one point, I heard myself talking out loud to the people in the album, recalling the memories and the stories being told in the pictures before me. I laughed out loud when I noticed that my childhood socks were actually longer than my Dad's shorts in many of my earlier years, and I could practically smell the Aquanet wafting from my mom's frosted hair. I could hear my brother's goofy childhood giggles and imagined all the fun we had just playing for hours doing nothing and everything from morning till night.
There were other pictures, too. Photos of people that chose to no longer be apart of our family. Photos of dear friends that were now barely acquaintances. Memories of good times with some that turned out to have badness in their hearts. It was hard to see those family times. But, it didn't take long before the photo albums continued to tell their stories. Without the loss of some, there wouldn't have been the beginnings of new relationships. Had the photo albums ended back then, we wouldn't see the beauty that we have today… the beauty that we yell at during zoo trips and scold for sassy mouths.
The footprints that were left on my life by so many were evident in those quiet moments sitting in my old home. I felt such a strong sense of gratitude for each person pictured, even the ones that were no longer a part of my life. For their presence was needed for the time that it was granted. Their love was a blessing, even if it was merely temporary.
Those feelings of blessing carried over as I spent my final moments of family time with some of the dearest people in my life. Sitting around the dining room table, the four of us played board games and talked and hugged for hours. We laughed until our sides hurt and tears ran down our cheeks. My Mom's left leg swung out as it always does when she giggles hard, and my brother nearly had an asthma attack as we listened to our Dad read his game answers in unabashed laughter. We realized that it was the first time we'd been together with just our clan in over 5 years. I could hardly believe it.
My parents are in their 50s. My one remaining grandma is in her 80s. My brother and I have our kids and our work schedules and obligations that seem to take up every spare moment. But I realized something. One day, I will look back on these years in a photo album. I will talk to my parents in their pictures because they will no longer be here to talk to in person. I will remember the zoo trips and the water parks with only fondness, because the arguments and grouchiness won't matter by then.
And someday my own kids will come back to their childhood home and sit on our couch as the sun shines through the curtains, looking at memories in an album – talking to people who have passed on, who have left by their own choosing, or who have simply grown apart. They will feel that same sense of nostalgia as they reminisce about holidays and silly hairstyles. And they will remember that Family Time was, in fact, beautiful.