I have heard that some families have reunions. As far as I can tell, a group of biologically related individuals come together to eat potato salad, welcome the drunk cousin and try to learn the names of the latest offspring additions.
They intentionally take vacation days and travel to do these things. And they don’t even build anything.
In my family, we only get together because someone needs a barn raised or I can’t figure out how to hang shingles. Sometimes we get together because someone had a really good-bad idea to do something really stupid-adventurous. Any of these purposes typically ends with us overeating salami and crackers, wondering why everything has to be hard and being grateful that we did not invite the drunk cousin.
The family reunion is at my house this year because I am building a shop. Also, it consists only of my father. Last year my brother came for the reunion, too, and got stung by so many wasps, he just taught me how to hang my own shingles. Working together on a project of this complexity and this much half-inch plywood brings out all the glorious dysfunction one would expect at any other jubilant family affair.
We start out all excited about the potential, and then someone orders the wrong size beams or forgets to pick up milk shakes and the conversation quickly goes from challenging to you’re-the-reason-I-go-to-therapy. The only difference I can clearly identify between this and the traditional method is that we don’t day-drink because we’re operating heavy power tools.
There is a phenomenon that occurs when we interact with our parents and siblings as grown adults. We’ve had years of experience now as autonomous grown-ups doing grown-up things, raising our own kids, holding down jobs, learning how to run table saws, but the minute I walk onto a job site with my dad, I’m 12 years old again.
“Don’t drive the nail in that far, you’re dinging the floorboards.” I turn my back and roll my eyes because if he sees me do it, I might get extra chores or lose my Jolt soda privilege. Within minutes, I need to go find some My Little Pony Band-Aids for my blisters or anything else I can do to avoid real work.
Of course, building a shop takes longer than your typical weekend family reunion, if only because my shop is supposed to be large enough to house my bike collection. And potentially aging parents or petulant teenagers. It is a dangerous risk to take – committing to spending that much time with family.
Equally, it’s an unexpected gift to see them in their element, being their real person. My dad might be one of the most innovative, skilled carpenters around and that is something I neither saw nor appreciated when growing up. He just went to work and came home. Working together gives us an opportunity to see different sides of each other and solve the mystery of why people not bound by blood might actually choose to spend time with us of their own free will. My dad isn’t just my dad. He’s a human on his own journey through this life. Fathering me is just one small part of that adventure and who he is.
Which reminds me that I am also not just my daughter’s mother, and perhaps one of the gifts I can bestow upon her is to share the other roles I have. I am far less demanding, critical or opposed to dessert in those other roles. I am much more fun as a friend than I am as a mother. And all these things exist simultaneously, but we tend to present ourselves in a rigid, predefined role within in our families. We are the child to so-and-so, the mother to this and that kid, the cousin who posted bail. But we are so much more and we seldom share this with family.
Unless of course your reunions are oversized projects lasting weeks during which all the roles of your person are necessary. In fact, I would argue that families should charge straight into that potential dysfunction dynamite and plan activities together similar to corporate team-building exercises. Go on a high ropes course and watch your mom face her fear of heights. Raft a river and plan the logistics with your drunk cousin. Or invite your dad over to teach you how to schlepp plywood up an extension ladder and sink framing nails. Just don’t ding the floorboards. You might discover endless new ways to appreciate them for qualities you’ve never noticed before.
And you’ll probably need that in case they move into your shop in a few years.
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at email@example.com
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