Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Fix for Fractured Family Syndrome

Today, in the spirit of "holistic" health being about more than medicine and a lot about spirit, I offer our family's answer to "fractured family syndrome". Try it; it won't hurt.

Back when our youngest was seven years old, we were as crazed as any two-parent family who worked outside the home while raising three kids. Mornings were such a mad dash I actually showed up to work once wearing two different-colored shoes. Just getting dinner on the table was an Olympic event. Worse, our middle child, while she adored her big brother, had taken a distinct dislike to her little sister, and relished every opportunity to show it. For all the times we caught her in an eye-roll or a mean word, I knew there were dozens of snarky moments we missed.

The holidays loomed, filled with obligations, to-do lists, and long lines at the post office. 

The only thing missing was any spirit of Christmas.

One day, shortly after rescuing the guinea pig from the heating vent where she'd been chased by the dog (don’t ask), I called everyone to the kitchen. Adopting my best don’t-mess-with-me “mommy” voice, I told them this Christmas we were going to do something new. Each of us would write a letter to our family. We would say what we loved about each and every member of the family. No negative stuff (sternly intercepting older daughter’s furtive glance at little sister). We would read the letters out loud on Christmas Eve, after a dinner we would all pitch in to cook together.

The moaning began right away, and didn’t stop. For the next two weeks I’d ask in a steel-hand-in-velvet-glove kind of way “how’s that Christmas letter coming along?” Sagging shoulders, massive sighs and moaning rose to a new art form. The kids probably wouldn’t have followed through except for their dad. Jim's Greek ancestors knew a thing or two about standing tough and being obeyed. (Which was pretty funny, considering privately he grumbled more than anyone).

The youngest skipped around happily, eager to share what she’d written. With her babysitter’s help, she had dashed off her letter a week before Christmas. My letter was done early too. (Gotta say, just thinking of what I would write to these four people put a smile on my face, through what would normally have been the most stressful days of the year.)

December 24th began the final countdown. Jim (fortified with a smidge of Irish whiskey) and the older two kids were in separate rooms, finishing up a letter they were by now convinced would be conspicuous by its absence.

We sat at the dining table, with white tablecloth, candlelight, the “nice” dishes, the works. In the middle of the table sat a small pile of envelopes. Christmas music played softly. The logs in the fireplace crackled and settled. After dessert we cleared the table, leaving only candles and the envelopes. The youngest, invited to begin, grabbed hers from the pile, took out her letter, and proudly read what she loved about her sister, her brother, her mom, and her dad. Her sister went next, speaking into a suddenly profound silence that arose from a fear we'd miss hearing nice things about ourselves from the people who knew us best. By the time mom and dad read their letters, smiles had become tears.

The next year it took less convincing to get everyone to write their letters. As the kids grew, and their writing skills and life experiences expanded, they even got a little competitive. Whose letter would be the funniest? The cleverest? Which would make mom cry the hardest? There was the year our outwardly tough-and-capable middle one told us about the struggles she was having with friends at school. The time our youngest told us how powerfully traveling made her appreciate things about home. The year the oldest came home from college having just lost his friend to a hit-and-run driver. When his turn came to read, his voice dissolved as tears flowed. He let us in on a deep pain I think he would have otherwise worked to “control”. How must it have felt to have his whole family stand to wordlessly embrace him?

We don’t get to choose what bad thing in life might befall us. Tomorrow is never a promise. It's one reason I love our Christmas Eve ritual. Once a year at least, I know I've said all the things I “wished I would have said”.

I now have a box of letters going back 14 years. Our daughters today could not be closer. I wonder what role those letters have played. Some day I will put all the letters together, in order, a formal chronicle of a family growing up together and figuring things out along the way.

Or maybe I’ll just keep them in the box. There’s plenty room for more.