When we were kids, we had to talk everything out. We had to have dinner together, listen to my parents ask us questions about the day, read us The Daily Bread, and recite the memory verse at the end. Bonnie sat there sweetly in her booster seat. John would quietly listen and stay inside himself, looking a bit bored. Philip never hid his feelings, so he opted to obediently stay in his seat while hanging his head against the floor of the carpet. I mastered in BS, so I looked earnestly at my dad, ready to participate, while I was secretly checking the clock to see how much longer until I could ask to be excused to work on homework.
We didn’t have fancy things, but we did go on vacation. Yes, we were definitely vacation people. Lest you start to have visions of Alan and Karma and four fighting (okay, two fighting, two watching) little ones traipsing around the beaches of Maui, just stop. Instead, imagine a minivan full of a 12 year old with Sony headphones attached to a blue discman, listening to Backstreet Boys, a 10 year old sitting loudly next to her, and the two peaceable kids sitting in the middle of the van, giving mom and dad a brief reprieve from the battles of their eldest children. Once we were out of said minivan, we bombarded the hardwood floors of friends and family. In lieu of a Hilton, we had Spare Bedroom. Every other year, we we rented a three-story condo in Tahoe, which, I think, was my parents’ most brilliant parenting strategy. This three-story home had a bedroom for each of us. I think that pretty much explains their aforementioned brilliance.
The most annoying thing of all, however, was that when we fought- which was often – we had to talk things out when we were finished. Can you imagine anything more maddening than spewing vitriolic diatribes at your sibling and then twenty minutes later having to EXPLAIN the root of the reason you were mad about his loud breathing? The worst. Absolute worst. And if we stormed off to our rooms to pout or hide, my mom would follow us and make us verbalize our frustrations. Again with the talking and explaining and not just being mad because Philip hates me and lives his life for the sole purpose of making me mad and getting me in trouble. (I was a very logical, rational young girl.)
It was horrible.
Well, until I was 18 it was pretty horrible.
Then I went away to college and miraculously, under no cloud of coincidence, our house became a lot more peaceful.
And then the strangest thing happened. Philip starting going to APU and I hung out with him outside the dinner table and outside of the back of the minivan. I remember the first time he asked for my opinion on his major. It was early on in his first semester of college. My brother, valedictorian of his private Catholic high school, 5s on all his AP exams, recruited by Villanova and all the other preppy schools back east, asked me for my opinion on his major. It was a turning point.
Slowly but surely, my arch nemesis became one of my closest allies. We started hanging out on purpose and enjoying each other’s company. Then eventually the Brazells decided to make sure APU would be funded for the next decade, and John and Bonnie moved down and attended my alma mater. We started going to lunch or dinner together on purpose as well, sans The Daily Bread.
These days when we gather around the dinner table with my family, it’s very different- for obvious reasons. We like to engage with one another and all genuinely want to hear what my parents have to say. The main difference is that this isn’t the only time we all converse. It bleeds into the whole day, in group text messages, afternoons in our beach cottage here in San Clemente, or out to dinner in Newport. We want to be around each other and be a part of each other’s daily stories. We still disagree and are even more opinionated now that we have seven adults in the family, but we still practice the same methods my parents modeled for us. And, yes, my mom has still been known to follow us to our room to force us to talk it out.
There is something to this way of living- the one that was hard for me as a kid, but is encouraging as an adult. Since first watching Brené Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability, I’ve been obsessed with her work. I’ve read all her books, some multiple times, and bring her work up as often as I can. I think I do this because I want so badly to understand and grasp what it means to do what she says. I want to live in a way that values the moment and doesn’t let fear reign. I want to give to the relationships around me without sacrificing those closest to me. I want to live wholeheartedly.
This last Christmas was no exception to our family norms these days. We had a simple morning bringing some gifts and some stories, classic jokes that dance the fine line of comically traditional and totally overdone, and lots and lots of looking at/talking to/playing with/crying about Will. Later on that afternoon as I sat on the couch reading, listening to Phil make some plans, John play the piano, and Bonnie talking with Nana, I realized that I didn’t need to look any further. The way my parents raised us is what it means to live life with your whole heart. The OG Brené Browns, as my brother said.
We had lots of years of making my mother’s “mom guilt” reach new heights as we fought publicly, lashed out harshly, and refused to eat anything that wasn’t a shade of yellow or white (plain bagels with butter, please). We had lots of years of not having money to have nice dishes or decor. But in our house, people and relationships were the priority. My parents never stopped inviting people over, despite the messes and marks. They never stopped making us face each other and ourselves. And I am so grateful they didn’t.