Cousins. In my area there are 18 of us, so we have had some large parties. Growing up I had a love/yuck relationship with them. As a kid I remember my cousins coming to my house for the holidays, anticipating their arrival with a mixture of excitement and dread. Each gathering could go either way – lots of fun or lots of awkward moments, trying to figure out what to talk about, or what to do. There were also the “traditions” (quirks) each family had that had to be endured even before the party started. One family stood on our front porch singing a Christmas song while we all stood there shivering, politely listening. Why couldn’t they have done that in the foyer? And the other family, with 7 boys, were like an infestation. In addition to excessive hugging, I felt the intense need to protect my belongings, since 7 of them were boys and, for any of you raising multiple boys, the one thing you know For Sure is that things will Break.
The main point of which is that while they were my family, and I knew I loved them on some level, there was always this little voice in my head whispering “Really? I’m related to them? Are you sure???”.
A number of us stayed in the area, married and had our own families. When I was first married I dissed all of them. I accepted invitations and didn’t show up, I declined invitations, I ignored phone calls. I look back over those years and still wonder what was happening in my head. I think it was partially “I can’t be related to them” and partially “I’m related to them; they might see what’s happening here”. Either way, I’m sure it hurt them, and it was a huge disservice to myself and my children.
I don’t remember what changed, but at some point, some years ago, I gingerly tipped my toe into the cousin’s pool. And it was one of the best things I’ve done as an adult. They have become my rock, my support system, the one’s who I know will be there to paint my living room, or hang and play games, or do/be whatever I need. One of my cousins spent every Sunday, for months, helping me go through my ex’s & mine’s business records to compile information for my accountant. It was tedious and difficult, and it was some of the best hours I’ve ever had with her.
Years back, we started having our Annual Cousin’s Christmas party. It is usually at my one female cousin’s home, mostly because she loves to play hostess, and her husband is a great cook. This year though, she was traveling for her work, so she asked if I could host. I said yes, as long as I had an out just in case, since my life seems to take dramatic unforeseen twists and turns. When I told my children we were hosting this year I was met with groans and complaints. They said “WHY?????”, and “I’m not cleaning the house”, and “don’t ask me to cook”, and “why do those people have to come here”, and numerous other obnoxious, rude comments. As has become my new modus operandi with them, I said little, quietly repeated that we were hosting, and stated that they were expected to be here and help.
I admit – I was really disappointed and confused with their reaction. We’ve been going to these parties for years, and they always seemed to enjoy them. There was always a happy buzz in our house as they got ready, checked each other’s outfits and hair, made sure the car was packed up, fought over who was driving and the best way to go. The always joined in the singing of Christmas Carols, enjoyed the company and the food, and were always chatting away happily on the way home, laughing and generally hyped about the night. So their complaints worried me. I wondered if they had entered the “alien” zone, in which they felt, as I had, that these people weren’t their family, they didn’t belong with them, they didn’t want to be bothered. (there is a lot of hugging that goes on, which takes some time to get used to). I was hopeful that the grumbling was a reflection of the general stress I’ve always felt while entertaining, but I wasn’t sure that was it.
Fast forward to a few days ago. We were having dinner and one of them asked what would be expected of them on Saturday. I thought for a minute and, since each cousin was bringing a dish and the house was sort of clean, stated that I didn’t think much. I asked that they just be available in case I needed something, and they somewhat pleasantly said sure.
Nothing like children to make you question your own sanity; hadn’t they just the week before said “I’m not helping with that”?.
Saturday morning, I slept in instead of going to my usual Yoga Class, and by the time I got out of bed two of my sons were out. I was a bit perturbed that they would take off, but before I knew it they were back with fresh bread and bakery items, like eclairs and cookies for the party! They pleasantly asked what they could do to help, and the rest of the afternoon went off without a hitch. There was no complaining about cleaning or other chores, they spent the day helping me, and two very interesting things came out.
- They started talking about how they were related to “those people” and, during that conversation, said how much they really like them and enjoyed these parties.
- They asked me what was different about me, I seemed very happy and unstressed getting ready.
The 1st comment, about how they are related, made me realize how important it is for me, as their mom and their link to “these people”, to make sure these relationships are solid. In retrospect, when my mother was preparing for these parties, her main statement was always “try to keep your cousins in the basement”. This is funny now, but at the time I remember feeling responsible for anything bad that might happen, as if it would be my fault if something broke, or we were too loud, or we got on the grown-ups nerves. Of course this added to ambivalence about my relationship with all of them. I am determined to make sure my children don’t feel that way. I want them to know that family can be loud, and messy and sometimes break things, but they are the one’s who will always be there when you need them, and who will love you regardless of what you do, or who you become. They are their life-line to a sense of belonging and security, and any problems or issues that arise due to their presence is of no consequence. Life is messy, right?
The second comment was a huge compliment. Growing up, my mother would get so worked up about entertaining we would call her the “Dragon Lady”. We would approach every party with dread, knowing that as the week progressed and the day drew near, her angst would increase and spill over into everything she did an said. We knew that on the day of the event we’d be required to help her all day, but with no sense of thanks or gratitude. To the contrary, she’d be so worried about “pulling off” the event in a spectacular show of propriety that all she’d ever see were the problem’s, the one candle that was crooked, or the lack of ice, or the missing Jack Daniel’s bottle that could ruin the entire evening. Each “problem” was akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis, a silent crisis that hung like a dark cloud above all of us, creating a sense of doom and destruction. We were on pins and needles, waiting for the foundation of our entire reality to drop out and swallow us whole. It was hell.
It never dawned on me, as a young adult, to attempt a party. Certainly, if it caused my mother so much stress, and she was a competent, prepared adult, I’d never be able to pull one off. I don’t think I held my first party until after I met my ex. From the moment we moved in together we started having parties. Some were more elaborate then others, and the elaborate ones were the ones he was usually involved in. (I was the queen of the spur of the moment party, the one in which people were hanging out on their front porches and I’d say come on over. Those were easy. All I had to do was order pizza, throw a pan of brownies in the oven and chill some beer.)
The ones my ex was involved in though, were a different matter. I thought that since he is a chef and would do the major cooking that these events couldn’t possibly be stressful, yet they were. Sure enough, my inner Dragon Lady began to appear. As hard as I tried, as much as I reminded myself all week to keep her at bay, as badly as I wanted to be calm and kind to my children, she always reared her ugly head and took over. I started to dread parties, because I knew that no matter what I did, my Dragon Lady Lived; she was alive and well, and she would take over. My children also came to feel about parties the way I had as a child; the dread over what would go wrong, what they might screw up, what nasty words or accusations might come their way.
My first party after my ex moved out was my middle son’s high school graduation party. As was usually the case, my ex provided the bulk of the food, so my role was the same it always had been. I got the house ready, took care of beverages and plates and napkins, I set the mood and made sure we had games and activities set up; all of the things I had been doing for 23 years. But it was different. It was fun. I felt a small twinge of stress, but nothing like I had before. I felt in control, I felt competent, I felt like it didn’t matter if something went wrong, I’d handle it and it wouldn’t ruin the day. Some things did go wrong that day, but it was okay. My son was happy, I was happy, and none of us were stressed out. Was my ex? Probably not. Even though he was seeing my family for the first time since our break up I’m guessing he felt no shame, no fear of confrontation, no worry at all. He was probably just excited to show off his cooking skills, as had always been the case.
Back to last night. It went off without a hitch. It was a great night. We had fun, we had serious moments, tender moments, but mostly we laughed, and sang and carried on like we were best friends. My boys, for all their complaining and feelings of dread, had a great time. And I had a great time. I did things the way I wanted to do them. I kept the night light and easy going, I didn’t sweat the small stuff, and as the meal finished I let the dishes pile up and made sure we all were togehter having fun, not standing in the kitchen washing dishes. As I look at the piles of dishes in my kitchen, the tables that need to go back to where they belong, the recycling that needs to go out, the bags of trash, I know that it will all get done. I know that I can sit here and write and the world won’t collapse because they dishes aren’t done. I feel, for the 1st time perhaps in my whole life, that my house doesn’t have to be perfect to be a home. My home is me, my children, my cousins, my friends and family, and with all of them comes mess, and breakage, and work to be done, things to be cleaned an reorganized, but most importantly, what comes with them is Love. Love in it’s highest form, Love that is everlasting, undemanding, kind, steadfast and true. Love that doesn’t care if the fork is in the right place, or the towels hung properly in the powder room, or the correct amount of candles or well folded napkins. All that matters is that we are together.
So with this, I say goodbye to my Dragon Lady and Hello to my Joyful Entertainer. Thanks to my Cousins.