Healthy, Happy, and Wise

Photo by Matt Reamy

Photo by Matt Reamy

My father-in-law turned sixty last Sunday, and the entire family gathered in Denver over the weekend to celebrate the birth of the dearly loved patriarch of our family. It’s the first time my husband and his three siblings have been together in several years, so I finally got to meet many of my new family members in person for the first time. I also had an opportunity to get to know those I have met before a bit better, and I came away from our weekend celebration with a renewed appreciation for this remarkable family into which I’ve married.

My husband’s parents have been married for nearly forty years. Next weekend we’ll be celebrating the 60th wedding anniversary of his grandparents. My husband has two younger brothers and a sister, each of whom are happily married to spouses who compliment them well. Having just celebrated our first anniversary last month, Matt and I are the newlyweds of the bunch. So I took this opportunity to simply observe the Reamy family dynamics.

I’m not sure if the model for a healthy and happy marriage began with Matt’s parents or his grandparents, but as I come from a more typical American family of the highly dysfunctional variety, it was sort of startling for me to see so many happily married couples in the same room. Both my parents-in-law and grandparents-in-law are clearly in love and fully committed to their marriages. Both couples act very much as single units, as do my husband and I. Not surprisingly, the same can be said for my siblings-in-law.

Since we know that children learn by observing and emulating their parents’ behavior, I think it’s reasonable to say that children who come from loving two-parent households are more likely to form strong, healthy bonds with their future partners. This certainly appears to be true of the Reamy clan. None of our marriages are perfect, I’m sure, but all of them are visibly happier and healthier than most marriages I’ve observed.

We kicked off the weekend celebration Friday night with mediocre Mexican food and a seemingly endless supply of tokens for arcade games at Casa Bonita. The first thing I noticed about our family is that everyone mingled freely together, but none of us strayed far from our spouses. My 10-year-old step-daughter and her 8-year-old cousin, whom she hadn’t seen in years, were immediately joined at the hip in that unique bond of friendship that seems to form only between cousins. Although my two nephews (ages six and almost three) were a little shy at first, they gradually warmed up to everyone—even those of us they’d never met before. Somehow, the titles of ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle’ put kids at ease. It’s almost as if kids are hard-wired to accept anyone who falls within the realm of family, which makes me wonder if there’s some sort of genetic tendency to form familial bonds that extend beyond our immediate families.

After dinner we sent the four little ones off to the hotel for a slumber party with Grandpa and Grammy, and my husband and I invited his three siblings and their spouses to our apartment for a nightcap. It was such a pleasure to see my husband interact with his brothers and sister, and I couldn’t help but appreciate how well everyone got along. The next day, we all gathered in a cozy heated caboose at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, which is where my husband took these gorgeous photos. You can see more of his photos from our family weekend here, here and here.

My birth family is nothing like my in-laws. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you may recall that my sister recently accused me of hating her and her two daughters before cutting off all contact with me. There are certain members of my family who refuse to be in the same room with one another, and both the maternal and paternal sides of my family are riddled with alcoholics and substance abusers. Not surprisingly, I suppose, my family tends to lean heavily to the left politically while my husband’s family leans overwhelmingly right. Also not surprisingly, almost no one in my family maintains an active spiritual life while my husband’s family is largely committed to their faith.

I’m not suggesting that either religion or politics can make or break a family, but it is sort of fascinating for me to compare and contrast these dynamics in the petri dish that is my own life. No single member of my husband’s family is more or less flawed than any member of my own family. Both families are very similar socioeconomically, but that’s where their common ground ends. My husband’s family genuinely enjoys spending time together. They like each other. They respect each other. These are qualities I always wanted in a family, so I’ve tended to look for them through the years.

When I was much younger and still single, I think I was often more curious about the friends and families of my boyfriends than about the guys themselves. I still have a few close friends that I met through men I’ve dated over the years. By the time I met my husband, though, I was far more concerned with finding a compatible mate than a functional extended family. Luckily, I found both.

I’ve always related more to conservatives than liberals politically, which I suppose is part of the reason I find it difficult to relate to most members of my own family. In terms of religion, however, I spent the vast majority of my life distancing myself from Christianity. I was raised Catholic, but what I was taught in Catechism as a child always felt inherently wrong to me. It completely defied what I knew instinctively about God, and (growing up under the tyranny of an abusive alcoholic) I learned from a very early age to rely on my instincts and to mistrust authority.

Having experienced a great deal of hypocrisy by the time I left the nest, I stubbornly held the belief that all Christians are hypocrites. As an adult, I worked for two different privately held companies that were owned and operated by Christian couples who further cemented that belief. I not-so-fondly named one of those two couples the Twin Vortices of Evil: Hypocrisy and Greed. Ironically, I met my husband while we were both employed by that couple. Imagine my horror, then, when I discovered that the guy I was falling in love with is a PK (preacher’s kid).

Photo by Matt Reamy

Photo by Matt Reamy

In the year and a half that I’ve known my husband’s family, my stubborn hold on the stereotype that all Christians are hypocrites has steadily eroded. I’ve found nothing but sincerity, honesty and authenticity in my new family. These are people who walk their talk. They’re not stepping all over everyone around them all week long and then praying for forgiveness on Sunday. They don’t wear their religion like some sort of crown jewel that mystically elevates them to a level of moral superiority. They’re just good, down to earth people with a Christian world view that pushes them to continually strive to become better people. And I love them for that because, although I don’t subscribe to a particular religion, I share their commitment to growth. I’ve also realized this past year that, despite my skepticism about religion, I share their Christian world view as well.

I’ve found my people.

Life is short. Take a closer look at those you tend to view with skepticism. You may be surprised to discover how much you have in common with them. You may even find your way home.

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When Did “I Disagree with You” Become “I Hate You”?

Am I the only one who wonders how something as common and simple as disagreement devolved into this grossly exaggerated idea that those who disagree with us must hate us, too?

My older sister and I rarely communicate. Not for any reason in particular, so far as I know. For me it tends to be an out of sight, out of mind sort of situation. I moved to Alaska in 1995 and lived there for eleven years. I had very little contact with any of my relatives during those years. This wasn’t because I didn’t care to see my family in Colorado, but because it took a monumental effort (and no small sum of money) to see them. I returned to Colorado once a year (twice, at most), and I made my best effort to get around to see everyone. It wasn’t always possible, however, so I prioritized my relations. I made sure I saw my parents and my brother (we’ve always been close), and I squeezed other family and friends in as time and circumstances allowed.

Not once in those eleven years did any of my relatives visit me in Alaska. I don’t fault them for that because I understand the logistics, but relationships are two-way streets. The burden of sustaining relationships over that distance should never have been solely my own to carry. My sister is six years older than me, so we were never really close while we were growing up. By the time I returned from Alaska, we might as well have been complete strangers.

Fast forward to yesterday. Out of the blue I get a long, rambling private Facebook message from my sister suggesting that our maternal grandfather was an illegal alien when he arrived in the U.S. some 100 years ago. She has no evidence to support her theory – only an anecdotal story from an alcoholic uncle (hardly a reliable source, in my opinion). She then demanded that I tell her how I “feel” about this anecdotal story. Since her insistence came on the heels of me ‘liking’ a political opinion that opposes making welfare benefits available to illegal aliens, I can only guess that my position on immigration is what prompted her to demand that I declare my “feelings” about our grandfather’s legal status.

Here’s my reply:

So, you asked what I think about Papa Joe. Truthfully, I don’t think anything about it. You haven’t given me any facts yet – only a lot of speculation and some thinly veiled scorn for me and my personal values. But even if it is a fact that he was an illegal alien, that changes nothing about my feelings for him. Or my feelings about myself or Mom or anyone else in our family, for that matter. It makes absolutely no difference to me whatsoever if he came here legally or illegally because it was 100 years ago. This country was a vastly different place back then.

If you’re comparing Grandpa to the illegals you see at work, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Grandpa worked for his living. The people you encounter at work are looking for handouts. Big difference.

Parenthetically, my sister works for Denver County in (I presume) some sort of social services capacity since she stated earlier in our PM thread, “In my work, I see lots of denials due to failure to prove legal status, just FYI.” I see those denials as a system that is functioning properly, or at least sufficiently. My sister evidently sees them as failures. In any case, her response to my reply was that I “seem full of hatred for [her] and [her daughters]”. To emphasize her point, she promptly ‘unfriended’ me on Facebook.

So… let me get this straight… I state very clearly that my grandfather’s ambiguous legal status when he arrived in the U.S. doesn’t change the way I feel about him (or anyone else in our family), and she interprets my response as “you seem full of hatred for me and my girls”.

I see this wild leap of anti-reason from “I disagree with you” to “you hate me” almost daily. It’s most prevalent in discussions that involve the faintest whiff of disagreement about gay marriage, immigration, abortion, or any other emotionally or politically charged topic.

How have these conversations devolved to this childish reductionism? It’s the intellectual equivalent of the sort of verbal exchange you’re likely to hear between two preschoolers fighting over toys in a sandbox. Another reply to “I disagree with you” that I hear frequently is “your opinion doesn’t count because you’re not gay [or a minority or a woman]”.

Seriously?

It’s time to grow up, people. If you can’t handle something as simple as being confronted with an alternate view that challenges your personal view, I suggest you check your premises. And grow a thicker skin, for Pete’s sake, because conflict and struggle are crucial stimuli for growth. We may achieve world peace and learn to coexist someday, but we’ll never live in a world that is completely free of conflict. And thank goodness because such a world would be incredibly static and boring.

“I disagree with you” does not mean “I hate you”. It means I. Do. Not. Agree. Period.

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the actual definition of ‘disagree’ from the unabridged home dictionary that my husband and I picked up at an estate sale recently (Webster’s New Third International Dictionary, 1961):

disagree

Incidentally my grandfather, a coal miner, died about sixteen years ago. What I remember most about him is that he was a quiet, hard-working man who provided for five kids by working long hours in a deep, dark hole in the ground. He grew a lush vegetable garden every summer and kept a perfectly manicured lawn. When he wasn’t gardening, he loved to fish. He taught all of his grand-kids to fish and was there to celebrate our first catches. He also looked forward to shoveling snow every winter. He would spend hours clearing freshly fallen snow from the sidewalks and driveways of his own house and ours, which was just next door.

He confided in me once that he enjoyed shoveling snow because it looks and smells fresh and clean – qualities I’m sure he appreciated profoundly after decades of chipping away at coal seams deep underground. In the years since my grandfather passed away, I’ve always felt closest to him when I see and smell freshly fallen snow.