Family

Creating Family
Time together
Spend less
Support and affirm
Family meetings
The darn TV
Story
Do it yourself
Nature
Home as Safe Haven

 

Creating Family

back to top

Building a life begins with family. We all want love and connection in our homes. The issue is our commitment, our willingness to give this a priority. Creating family takes time and intention. As is so evident in our wider culture, safe, reliable home life is not a guarantee. The family is under constant attack from jobs that keep us away from home, jobs that move us from state to state, advertising that pushes dissatisfaction and fast foods. And the intrusive blair of the television, pumping violence and cynicism into our living rooms, right into the center of family life. TV undermines all values. Creating family requires that we swim against this tide, at least until we create a culture that truly supports us and our families.

 

Time together

back to top

Creating safe families requires priority. Family must be the most central focus of our lives. Most of all, we must be present. My father, who was president of a large corporation, always arrived home on the 6:10 train out of New York City. Most days, I met him on my bike and walked him home. Dinner at 6:30. He gave us a priority beyond the demands of his job, and that made a great difference. For some of us getting home for family dinner is easy. Others have less control. With jobs paying less and less, with two parents needing to work, sometimes two jobs, arranging regular times to be together as a whole family may require extraordinary resourcefulness. But we cannot build a sense of family unless we arrange to be together as a family. Parents need to find that time together, and it must come before kids activities as well. This needs to be an overarching commitment, be it daily or several times a week.

In our family, when the children were little, we had breakfast and supper together In the morning we played Little Red Hen. Whoever was up first, mostly me, could sing: 'My name is the little red hen, I do it again and again, the children I wake, the breakfast I make, Three cheers for the little red hen.' It was obnoxious, but it happened every morning. Then we rated each person as 'the little red hen' - first down to breakfast, 'sir speedy of snails' -the second, 'sir steadfast of snails'- third, and finally the lowly 'sir snail of snails' usually my wife Linda. We all ate breakfast together until high school when the children were old enough to fend for themselves.

Every night sitting at table was like a religious ritual. Julie once told us that her friends couldn't believe that we ate together. It was a commitment all of us made to each other. We could count on each other to be there for this act of family renewal. As the kids hit adolescence, we began the ritual of grace. At the beginning of the meal, not necessarily before starting to eat, each of us thought of one thing we were grateful for that happened that day. It changed the focus from complaint to gratitude, and probably had impact throughout the evening.
These rituals were like the skeleton that gave some shape to our life together. We could count on them, and on each other.

 

Spend less

back to top

The less we spend, the more freedom we bring to our lives. Every dollar represents a few minutes of work, draining our time and our energy. When our daughters clambered for more shopping money, my wife gave them a choice. Would you rather have more clothes or have dad home for dinner? Thank God, they said they'd rather have me. But that is the choice for many of us. A new car, or more time to be together. Name brands or generics. Shopping malls or yard sales. More stuff or more time.

Many families have no such choices. They already are in the cheapest apartments, and can barely afford the cheapest necessities. They need to take any work they can get, at any hours. For them, what I am saying will remain a dream until our entire culture really focusses on families and deals with issues like minimum wage, family needs.

But many families have succumbed to the culture's insistence that enough is not enough. We need and deserve the BEST. Two new cars, a big vacation, brand name cloths, hairdos, plastic surgery, fancy food and on and on. To pay for them, we take jobs that demand our time and our souls, leaving us exhausted and empty. Every dollar saved offers us freedom.

My car is sixteen years old. My last one did nineteen. Hand-me-downs from family are half our furniture. My wife and I get clothes and presents at yard sales. I have two pairs of shoes, three pants for winter and three for summer. My wife cuts my hair. I am not a fashion plate, and no one seems to care. But I am home every day at six.

 

Support and affirm

back to top

Again, this is a culture that supports dissatisfaction. We are not pretty enough, we don't smell good enough, we are not good enough. In our homes, we must support and affirm each other. We must focus on the strengths and beauties of our loved ones and tell them. Often. Oftener. It is crazy that many parents think that it helps children if they don't settle for who their children are, but demand more. More A's, more little league home runs, and then our children will do 'better'. When Julie was thinking about college, we encouraged her to take a course for the college boards so she could get into a better school. After days of urging her, Julie the wise acknowledged that with this effort, she could get into a more competitive college but stated her preference to go to a school 'that likes me just the way I am'. That stopped our incessant pushing. Julie, just the way she is, is a happy and successful adult.

What children need is affirmation. The message that they are lovable and admirable, just as they are. We must offer them that. Where else can they learn that they are okay if not from us? If they are secure inside, of course they will succeed.

So we must support everything that they do right. We must notice their small acts of kindness. We must shower them with hugs and love. It is like throwing an internal switch to focus on the positive, and we may have to work on it. But home needs to be a safe haven from all the negatives that we all face in this larger culture.

Home is also a place where we need to heal the wounds of the day. Mom's latest job disaster, Julie's best friend's meanness. We need to listen, hug and love. When Laura was in sixth grade, school was a social nightmare. Every afternoon she came home and cried. All the girls she wanted to hang out with shunned her. Day after day. Night after night we held her and listened and loved her. The same story all year. Home was where she could come and recover. We could tell her she was lovable and worthy, that all those mean girls were stupid. That summer, she went to a camp where she made good friends from another town, and the next year they became part of her out of school support team. By eighth grade, she had found friends in her own school and this crisis was over.

 

Family meetings

back to top

When our children were still young -4-6 years old- we started having family meetings. The rules were simple: we all met together, and no one left until we were done. We all listened. We could say anything. These meetings occurred when someone was upset, or, more likely, when there was tension and anger under the surface. Linda was feeling like she had to do everything, or I was feeling like no one listened to me, or Julie felt like we loved Laura more than her, or Laura was upset because Linda yelled at her. Or chores weren't getting done.

These meetings occurred about once a month. The kids hated them. There was usually crying, some yelling. If our family was a pressure cooker, these meetings were the release. Afterwards, we all felt better, and we all relaxed and smiled. One essential truth emerged: that we all cared deeply, and once a situation was fully aired, we could respond.

 

The darn TV

back to top

We have always been aware of the amount of time our family used TV, always regarded it as an alien presence to be watched carefully. We had just one set, in the family room, and restricted watching.

After the kids left home, we realized that we were both wasting a lot of our lives mindless in front of our set. Ten years ago, Linda and I finally agreed to unplug it. This has added hours of awakeness to our weeks, and removed a series of mind-deadening messages: violence, exploitive sex, messages like "You're not clean enough", "You're not thin enough", "You're not sexy enough", and "you don't drink the right beer". We do still watch videos, but we can chose them more selectively, and they are over when they're over. What has happened is that we got the gift of time, maybe eight or ten hours a week. We relax more, read more, do more with our church, and spend more time with our children and grandchildren. Not having a daily newspaper also helps. We read the Sunday newspaper, and listen to National Public Radio to keep informed.

 

Story

back to top

Story has been a central theme of family. When the children were little, we read them every night before sleep. The Little King, Richard Scary's books were read and reread to all our delight. For Julie's first night at college, Linda and I sat with her and 'read' the Little King to her by heart. As the children got older, story crept out of bed time and into any time we all could find together. Jane Eyre, The Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, so many stories. Watership Down was a lifetime favorite as Linda, our best reader, gave each animal a different voice and accent. Again, it was time together, happy, safe, enjoying these beautiful fantasies.

 

Do it yourself

back to top

Our home has grown as an extension of our inner lives. Like everyone else, our refrigerator has been a billboard of the latest in our family life. First, kids paintings, then pictures of family and friends. Linda and I have done our own painting and wall papering- with lots of arguing. My idea is to get it done and worry afterwards. Linda thinks we should do it right the first time. But each time we finish a project we are proud and have a sense of ownership. Anything home made we put up. Linda's paintings find a place on our walls and we have family photos everywhere. I'm proud to say we have never consulted a decorator, and result is a home that is warm, and unimpressive. People like it, and best of all, feel at home here.

Probably the most extreme example of this do-it-yourselfing is our home in Vermont. We owned some land, and about twenty years ago, got tired of tenting in the rain, and decided to build a shelter. A friend dug in 9 columns, I borrowed a book on building and made up a plan. For that whole spring and summer, Linda and I, Linda's brother Ken and his wife Barbara, and Laura and her husband Brian with assorted friends arrived Friday nights, dragging in lumber. We all got up early and built all day. One friend was an expert at breaking glass, so it took us seven pieces to get five floor to ceiling glass panels in place. At one point, someone had to climb a ladder twenty feet high, supported only by four of us at ground level, to connect the first two sides. William O'Connor volunteered and succeeded. He has been a family hero ever since. We learned all about tin roofs, and were delighted to get thru our first rain storm totally dry. Our shelter was twelve feet by twenty one, and is now connected to a sister construction of the same size that we built the next summer. For me, it was a major dream come true. I'd had a vision of its rising roof, sheets of glass panels looking out into the woods, and converting dream to reality was one of the peak experiences of my life.

This building together was central to the shaping of our family. We bonded with each other, and especially with Brian, just married to Laura. He and Ken brought brawn and endurance. Linda was willing to be the main cook and nurturer. I brought what little know-how we had, and usually woke about three AM to plan and then direct the next day's building. Laura and Barbara hammered a lot. When problems arose, we all schemed together. We were shamelessly proud of each small achievement. The materials cost about two thousand dollars. It was truly a labor of love.

 

Nature

back to top

Life slows down in Vermont. We also learn to respect nature, as we need to stay inside when it rains, get into our sleeping bags when it gets dark, or too cold. We get up with the sun. Favorite activities include listening to the rain on our tin roof, or admiring the lightening when it storms. So we are both in awe of nature, and dominated by it.

Living exposed to nature was important to all of us. Lying on our field looking up at the bright star world overhead helped us to see our place in the universe. Some nights we saw shooting stars, sometimes man-made satellites sailing along. Some evenings were filled with fireflies. Sometimes rain and enormous bursts of lightning and thunder so loud we jumped. We learned to see the world as it was, unfiltered by our insulated, sturdy, busy home in Marblehead.


Another experience of learning about nature was the several years of maple sugaring. In the spring, we found some sumac and cut off branches which were hollow tubes. We drilled holes in our many maples, inserted the tubes just far enough in and hung coffee cans from them. During the cold nights when the maple sap flowed down the trunk to the roots, some of it dripped into our cans. In the morning it rushed back up and we had more sap. Every morning we rushed out to see what we had collected. Each can full felt like a special gift from nature. In several weeks, our daily collections filled two garbage pails. For one whole weekend we boiled off the water on an outdoor fireplace. We wound up with about two quarts of very smoky maple syrup. Like so many things, it tasted smokey, looked awfully dark, but it was ours.

 

Home as Safe Haven

back to top

Our home is often home to friends or even strangers in need of a place to stay. For a few summers we hosted actors from a local summer theater company in our back bedroom. Linda's sister and her brother each had long stays with us. Two Swedish students stayed the better part of the summer, but when we found out that among other sleazy ventures they were making up raffle tickets to benefit a nonexistent charity, we asked them to leave. Not that we didn't continue taking people in. Visitors to our church regularly stay here. This year, a friend who separated from his wife, and then another friend who couldn't deal with her somewhat adult daughter who moved in on her, came and rested. Except for the Swedes, we have been vastly enriched by these visitors. It is great to have guests who stay and hang out, and help out and become forever friends.

Our garage is home to friend Michael's motorcycle, parked each winter in front of my car. It blocks access to the gardening tools, but who cares. And Matthew and Deenahs' bikes. We are lucky enough to have the space and are happy to be able to share it.