When I was in graduate school, I worked with several Indian students and these relationships were defined by the questions we asked one another. There always seemed to be something to learn. One day I asked a female co-worker, “Do you miss monsoon season?”
Her response was not quite what I expected: “I do. I miss everyone being inside together, even though there were many of us.”
In my mind, I imagined damp clothes, mildew, and body odor. What could ever be redeeming about such an environment? In truth, I had trouble seeing past the external to consider the internal.
If you are looking to test your patience, I highly recommend driving through Atlanta two days before Thanksgiving. The night before our long road trip to my in-laws in Mississippi, we decided on a new route. Needless to say, I saw my entire life flash before my eyes on one occasion. Despite traffic, detours, and two restless children, we did survive and only added an extra hour to our normal 10-hour adventure. I must confess that it takes considerable restraint when I hear friends complain about the 2-3 hours it takes them to visit their relatives. What a dream that would be!
I knew that this holiday would be unique, as my sister- and brother-in-law as well as their two children would also be celebrating Thanksgiving with us. How does one prepare themselves for six adults, two toddlers, and two infants under one roof?
When my husband and I decided to marry back in 2009, I did not understand what it meant for two families to come together. Truthfully, I don’t think many people do. Among other lessons, I quickly learned that Virginia is not “the South” and our parents will never be closer than 12 hours to each other. Unfortunately, the fine print only grows more complicated when children are inserted into a marriage. Luckily for us, the trials and challenges of our first three years of marriage seemed to pave the way for family harmony in the years to come.
Our Thanksgiving togetherness this year, as you can imagine, included energetic children, countless spills and messes, and a collective loss of sleep. For myself, one thing in particular excited and motivated me to persevere through the discomforts of intimate family proximity: our early gift exchange (since time and place would separate us from my in-laws for Christmas). I find a special thrill in giving presents to others, especially when time and resources have been deliberately reserved for gift-finding.
In a matter of minutes, my early-Christmas high came to an end: one of our most favorite gifts that we have given, a cigar box turned smart phone boombox, malfunctioned. In the midst of abundant food, warmth, and love, I grew despondent. If there was ever a moment of holiday conviction, this was it: I couldn’t see the family for the presents. Somewhere in my desire to show love, I trusted a material item to carry a message that only I can deliver. This is the secret of family togetherness: the time you have to spend with one another is ALL you have. Gifts, money, and even holidays mean nothing if you aren’t willing to share the gift of a vulnerable self with the people around you.
When your personal space is compromised for a long enough period of time, you learn that the walls you put up to protect yourself and keep others at a safe distance are too heavy to bear. Let them in.
My relationship with my in-laws is ever evolving, but my hope is always for the better. I can’t imagine life without them now. Perhaps this is why we get married after all – perhaps in those years of learning to love strangers, we learn how to let others love us. And, if this is true, why in the world should we ever think any gift could be greater?