Family heroes and villains

Who was your family’s hero of choice growing up? I liked Dudley Do-Right for unremembered reasons, maybe because of the Mountie uniform? Or because my Dad’s middle name is Dudley and he often got lost? Or we loved the Ripsaw Falls flume ride at Universal? Come to think of it, the six of us do enjoy a family flair for the melodramatic.

We now include 3 generations of 16 adults aged 19 to 79, plus 7 kids/grand/great-grandkids aged 4 months to 17 years old, scattered from Chicago to Orlando to Denver to Philadelphia to Minneapolis. We play together annually as a family in a water sport-centered, summer extravaganza. More local members reunite in an overly-intense, holiday celebration that leaves everyone happy, but exhausted. And then my brother jokingly asks us all to leave him alone for a few months again. Till summer.

But the minute we return home, we girls call each other on the phone, “Miss you already!” And then, for the best hour of every week, we talk. Think of it as a Monday, mobile, melodramatic version of “he said/she said.” (Did you ever play “telephone” when you were a kid? The old-fashioned party game of passing along a message to giggle over how the message changes as it spreads?) The point is rarely for giggles when we play telephone in extended families like ours. My phone rings again nearly every Tuesday morning with another voice asking, “Haven’t you heard? or “Aren’t you worried about?” We are all active in ministry, so we are allowed to gossip under the guise of prayer requests.

Each kid and grandkid in our family, each cousin and aunt and uncle, each sibling and each spouse has his or her own relationship with each other and with our parents. Do I hear a “duh?” Well, it’s not so simple with 23 of us in the e-world. We do communicate multiple times each week via texts and photo updates, emails and voicemails, mostly for positive, encouraging reasons. We weave an electronic story of our lives that includes each other. We cheer each other on, but we also take weekly turns  playing heroes and villains. One self-casts as fair Nell. Who will play Snidely Whiplash this week?

The basic plot begins with either misunderstanding or disagreement. In response, Snidely dashes off  hasty emails. Villian #2 types a snappy critique and hits reply all. One recounts the tale to another as a melodrama of bad behavior. One texts a joke to a sibling and forms an alliance. Everyone gets testy. It is all fun and frustrating at the same time. This week’s melodrama included a pre-fight over next July’s vacation. What? Start a pre-fight 5 months early? Thankfully, several replied with grace enough to carry the day. For now.

As I think about it now, we create unhealthy triangles. Little direct conversation occurs and it is useful only to stir up the hornet’s nest. The grown-up version of teasing our little brother to tears. Or tying Nell to the railroad tracks.

Dudley Do-Right doesn’t always ride up singing, “Here I come to save the day!” Do you remember Snidely’s snarl, “Curses, foiled again.” To which Dudley replies, “All’s well that ends well.” Can that type of justice carry us through to summer togetherness? I doubt it.

This week’s installment got me wondering, “How intentionally do I communicate? How do I respectfully disagree? Is it good to rely on texts, forwarded emails, and jokes instead of personal phone calls? How might we better we deal with misunderstanding? How do we stop trying to control each other? How can we let our kids be kids while helping them honor the generations? How do we make room for individual differences and wishes?” And I’m not even the token family therapist.

Come to think of it, maybe we should start the pre-prayer 5 months early instead. Bonhoeffer says, “Spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ.” Maybe I’ll call my sister to talk about it.