Saturday, November 29, 2008


Okay, I almost titled today’s post “Norman Rockwell was on Prozac.” Because of that picture over there—the one of the perfect table and the happy people? But while searching for that painting itself, I encountered a lot of his other work, too—and was forced to confront the fact that Rockwell was a genius at portraying every nuance of human expression. To jest about the man himself or his unspeakable talent felt pretty childish and rude. So, I had to readjust the tone of this post a bit, so as to be humble before a master.

Besides—as far as I know, Prozac did not exist in the era when he painted.

Why would such an insolent and drug-related thought even skitter through my brain? Well, it’s the fact that I’ve just finished a bevy of Thanksgiving gatherings, and I know that there were some smiles at the table, but also some other, darker expressions. I’ll never know why Norman R. chose to exclude the antagonistic relative, the young upstart, the whining child, the sibling competition, the fawning over the favorite, or any of the other uglies that turn up when you gather family together to “be thankful.” You’ll find not a trace of any of that very real hideousness within the painting’s beaming countenances.

Since I know the artist is quite capable of showing emotions better than most folks who pick up a brush, I must assume that either a) his family was perfect and got along perfectly, or b) he chose to paint a picture of the gathering as we would all like it to be. I’m betting that the latter assumption is the right one.

(Okay, you people who are reading who really believe that Norman Rockwell got it right and family gatherings are wonderful: you can stop reading. Go call someone you’re related to, and please don’t ever tell me how exemplary your family is.)

Why does my chest get tight as holidays approach? Golly. I couldn’t tell you. I really like holidays, the ideas behind establishing them, the religious celebration and remembrance that accompanies some, the preparations and the anticipation. I love feasting, sneaking cookies before a meal, an excuse to drink wine, and the warm feeling you get when you give a gift that’s truly appreciated. There's a flip side, of course; I’ve already addressed the commercialization of most of our special days, so I won’t belabor the subject here. But family gatherings are part of holidays for most of us. And they’re tough—even when they go well.

Perhaps it’s because expectations are so high; these are people who are supposed to love and accept us without condition. Or so we’ve been led to believe by Hallmark. They may or may not be people who’ve known you for a long time, but most likely they are…so there’s an assumed level of comfort there, a familiarity that should make us feel at ease. (If only that were the case all the time.) We head to gathering with hopes of complete acceptance, support, and kinship...hopes that are quite often unrealized. Hours later, we leave, deflated again.

It may be tied to the fact that family feels perfectly allowed to inquire of attendees whether they are seeing anyone, or why they aren’t married yet, or (after marriage) when they plan to pop out a kid. Or another kid. My heart goes out to all the folks who are getting hit with those questions this season; not fun.

Or, it’s possible that family gatherings are difficult because they happen at sentimental occasions. Think about it: how often do you gather the familial gang together for no apparent reason? Not often. Usually it’s a birthday, or Christmas, or some youngster is graduating. So, people are emotionally messy already, before they even see each other. Nothing good can follow. (The whole issue of sentimentality is even more complicated and frustrating for those of us who just aren’t very. Sentimental, that is. Fodder for another post.)

Maybe it’s simply because I’m a loner. I prefer the term introvert, but the end result is the same—you like people, but they exhaust you in large doses. Maybe it’s just the noise, the general din that breeds confusion as a heap of voices try to exceed each other in volume. Maybe it’s the fact that I can never feel comfortable speaking the absolute truth at any of these gigs; it’s like hanging around with a big gag tied around your face to squelch any honest outbursts. Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t stuff myself with mashed potatoes anymore because they drive up my glucose worse than pumpkin pie does. Maybe it’s because I’m a mom now and I have to stay cognizant of my son’s whereabouts and activities—thus no post-meal napping. Or maybe it’s trying to make multiple appearances and knowing we’re still missing out or hurting someone’s feelings with our absence.

Whatever the reason, it’s not important. I’ve survived another Thanksgiving. I’m relieved, but not relaxed: I know the biggie is still to come. I’m already practicing my deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out.

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