beach house

Our families provide us with love and learning

(This is my column in today’s Greenville News)

I am currently relaxing on the South Carolina coast with a few family members. I think the total number only comes to 24. But sometimes we lose track of the children, so it could be 22 or 23. The women in the family have been pretty darn fertile, so we aren’t always sure. But the chaos of a multitude of children, well that’s the way we like it.

A family vacation is always a learning experience. I grew up in a smaller family unit. Collective vacations with cousins were not very common. We were more the ‘family reunion’ types. You know, get together, eat some chicken, visit a grave or two, sweat, eat some pie, go home.

But this clan I married into, they get together. In fact, I’m very proud of my wife who has missed one, that’s one, vacation with her family in all her…few years. (Almost slipped up there!)

The first time I went on a vacation with my wife’s family, we were 19-years-old and dating. We went (prophetically it seems) to Myrtle Beach. I was assigned a sleeping space in a closet. It’s a family joke that goes on to this day, these 27 years since we met. Fortunately, I’ve graduated to my own bed, fully equipped with wife; legal and all!. This week, my daughter slept in the closet, but only because she thought it was cool.

The annual trip is something we look forward to with great anticipation. When we arrive, we dispense rooms, stock the house with food and make plans. Over the years, the trip has certainly evolved. When we were younger and childless, we could stay up at all hours watching movies, playing cards and laughing ourselves silly. Morning had little meaning.

Now, one is apt to find an adult at any time of the day tumbled across a couch, snoring and drooling in a valiant attempt to make up for a year or so of lost sleep. Further, some of the family (not us) have small children. The smallest is four-months-old, our newest member, and she still cries. Her big brother still gets fussy when tired. His nearest cousins, only a bit older, are also wee ones, and subject to the normal, delightful characteristics of childhood like all the rest. So our family activities have to account for meal times, nap times, snack times and bedtimes. Not to mention allergies, childhood personalities, adult proclivities and all the rest.

For one glorious week, we mix it up, with laughter and chaos. We roll around in the ocean, eat ridiculous amounts of junk food, cook meals in the kitchen (each family unit gets their own night) and sometimes eat out. For that one week we are a commune…except that nobody is doing any serious work and the food is probably better.

We also take trips. I should say, rather, migrations. Today for instance, we drove to Savannah. Coordinating the needs, interests, desires, schedules, dietary habits and attention spans of so large a contingent of Appalachians is no small feat. My wife’s dual degrees, one in recreation and one in counseling, make things easier. But even in the madness of communicating, planning, meeting and moving as a herd, it’s never dull. And we always manage to make it a joy.

Family is like that. Family serves many functions. It is where we find comfort and encouragement. It is where we find (theoretically at least) unconditional love. With family we can fall asleep mid-sentence, and wake with a blanket over our legs. With family we can make dinner of leftover hot-dogs, a sushi roll and fudge-stripe cookies and no one will bat an eye.

Because it is a place of love, family is a place where character is molded. Family is where we learn (or should learn) genuine tolerance and love. It’s where we learn to see through, see past, the idiosyncrasies, the weirdness and difficulty of the people connected to us by marriage and genetics. And in time, learn to love them not in spite of crazy, but because of crazy! Family is where we learn to be grateful that they love us too, regardless of our own assorted personality disorders and innate strangeness.

Psalm 68:6 says, in part, ‘God sets the lonely in families.’ I know that I’d be lonely if not for the sprawling, wild family that came as a bonus prize with my wife. And I would be poorer if I hadn’t received the rich gifts of family vacation.

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