Even the wholesome are not exempt from dysfunction
Some would describe my family as dysfunctional; some would be correct. When certain members of my clan shop for a new refrigerator, they’ll ask the sales clerk if there is room enough inside to store human heads. Of the six of us, most have been through divorce, addiction, intervention, rehab, psychotherapy and one even joined the Republican Party. Nevertheless, I can honestly say that among my family are some of the most intelligent, funny and kindest people I’ve ever met. Unfortunately the same could not be said for me. Despite of, or perhaps because of my relations’ peculiarities, I married into the Walton family. My bride’s background is one of Norman Rockwell normalcy, coma-like calmness and perfect teeth. You might think that into such a white-bread group, I wouldn’t be welcomed – not so. From the onslaught, her folks and family were excepting and nonjudgmental. Many parents would have resented their youngest child keeping company with a convicted miscreant with limited means of support and over a decade her senior. Not so, Ellen’s relations.They received and honored my weird family and me into their hearts and homes. They never questioned when my brother showed up at our wedding rehearsal dinner wearing a thong and a top hat, or why the monogrammed towels I gave them for Christmas had the wrong initials. While my family could be described as deranged but festive, Ellen’s is balanced, benevolent, and yes, a little boring.It was because of all that, when we traveled to the Midwest to attend my bride’s family reunion, I didn’t expect much excitement. Ellen’s clan migrated to the Midwest from Sweden in the early 1900s. Though Ellen’s parents left the Heartland to seek their fortune in London and on the East Coast, the rest of the clan stayed in the land of the “chosen frozen.”Her forefathers left Scandinavia to seek the bright lights and big-city of northern Minnesota. When the Petersons partied, they partied hardy.There are sidesplitting stories of her grandfather, Sven, who in a fit of craziness would plow his fields with his shirt on backwards. And if that isn’t wild enough, the tales still fly about her wacky uncle Hanz with his crazy collection of bowling shirts. On a diet of hard work and lutefisk, the family flourished.At our particular gathering, there was five generations, most with blonde hair and blue eyes. Though Ellen’s family was obviously the gentrified part of the cult, the rest were fine examples of Middle America. The two matriarchal sisters named Anna and Dotty were farm-raised and clear-complexioned. They were round, stoic, both closing in on a hundred, and neither had had sex since the Hoover administration. The youngest in attendance was a 3-year-old toehead named Carl. He ran around the gathering like a cat in a thunder storm punctuating his open field sprints with violent screams.Carl seemed a prime candidate for Ritalin, but his mother insisted he was a gifted child. (Is it my imagination, or are there more gifted children now than 20 years ago?) The weekend began with a reception and cocktail party for 50 people. The mood and posture of the event was one of a junior-high dance. The men stood on one side, hands in pockets, uncomfortable in their new clothing, arguing fishing bait. Across the room the woman gathered in clusters discussing their gifted children. If any gathering needed alcohol, it was that one. When Ellen’s Uncle Boots asked if I wanted to split a beer, I thought he was joking; he was not. Before long, most of the group could be seen divvying up cans of cold ones while discussing the just-finished ice-fishing season.For me, this was a pleasant and relaxing change from my Boston Irish experience of drinking, singing and fighting at family functions.Though I had little in common with Ellen’s relatives, they were good, but benign, company.Following the reception, there was a boat ride, then a cookout and tractor pull.It was midway through the horseshoe tournament that I began to notice some of them seemed to have difficulty pronouncing vowels. By the time dinner was over many were openly fighting over the dividing-up of the can of Hams Beer and rehashing the distribution of their grandparents estates.Before long, fights were breaking out over vintage Nash Ramblers, ice shanties and lawn tractors.I worked the crowd and made small talk. Being a student of family neurosis, I made it my business to learn as much ancestry drama as possible.What I found was when it came to dysfunction, even the wholesome are not exempt. Among this crowd of clear skin and clean living were assorted stories of dirty divorces, financial philandering and abused snowmobiles. That weekend made me feel better about my own heritage. I’ve come to the conclusion all bloodlines host a combination of love and dysfunction. You might need to look deep to find the dysfunction, and then a little deeper to see the love, but it is all there. Love and affection seem to flow more freely to those of like-lineage. “You can pick your friends, you inherit your family.” Or like my Uncle-in-law Boots is found of saying, “I’d rather spend time with this gang than have a fish hook in my lip …”Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of “Biff America” can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio and read in several mountain publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr. America is on spring break and this is an encore column.
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