Ode to a Family

By: Shannon Ralph

I am crabby. I admit it. I am writing this article for The Next Family in a state of utter crotchetiness. I am PMS-ing this evening. And, against my better judgment—and against all that is right and decent—I had fast food for every single meal today. My body is likely polluted by God-only-knows how many cancer-causing chemicals and tissue-corroding artificial dyes. In addition, I was poked and prodded at seven o’clock this morning—before I had my coffee, even—by an ultrasound technician who was trying to get a good view of my gallbladder that has been in a constant state of spasm since returning from Kentucky a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps I had one too many plates of good old Southern gravy and biscuits while down south. So I am cranky and bloated and uncomfortable.

As I write this, I am staring at my children across a sea of cereal boxes. Apple Jacks. Berry Berry Kix. Honey Nut Cheerios. Cinnamon Toast Crunch. This is our “dinner”. Dinner of champions…and exhausted parents everywhere. My kids are chattering incessantly about the silly comics on the back of the cereal boxes. I am giving a far-from-Oscar-worthy performance of feigning interest. I wonder to myself when they stopped putting toys in cereal boxes. Probably for the best. My kids certainly don’t need another thing to fight over.

Today has not been a good day. My children have been beasts. I say this with nothing but love and affection, but they have been absolute monsters today. Though every single one of my three beloved children were wanted and planned for and adored from the moment they entered our lives, today is one of those days that begs the question, What the hell were we thinking? Three kids? Have we lost our minds? Three? Wouldn’t one have sufficed quite nicely? Coming from a large family, I couldn’t just settle for one. No, I had to have three. Ruanita tried to talk me out of it, but my will was stronger than hers. My resolve greater. Damn that will and resolve!

I come from what is definitely considered a large family by today’s standards. I have two sisters and a brother. My mom has five sisters and six brothers. I have over twenty first cousins. And second cousins are appearing at a rate I can barely keep track of. (Yes, I just ended a sentence with a preposition but, in my current state of mind, I am exercising my prerogative to be grammatically incorrect.) Being good old Southern Catholics, people in my family apparently do not believe in birth control. Or perhaps they just suck at using it. Regardless, we are a fertile bunch. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding—minus all the Greeks.

Growing up, my house was a constant stream of people and noise. With the exception of one or two, all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins lived in my small hometown—most of them on the same end of town. I grew up surrounded by family. We never knew who was going to show up for dinner. Growing up in such a large family taught me numerous skills I doubt that I would have learned from the outside world.

In my large family,  I found my voice. My LOUD voice. In a crowd of bodies, one must learn to speak loudly and steadily to be heard above the roar. I learned to demand attention when I wanted it. Despite being an introverted child, I discovered how to be heard in a family.

From my family, I learned tolerance. With a family as large as mine, there are bound to be a few nuts in the bunch. I won’t name names, but suffice it to say that not everyone in the family is playing with a full deck. Despite our eccentricities, every person in our family is tolerated, appreciated, and loved. That’s not to say we won’t talk about you behind your back. We are a family, after all. But when push comes to shove, we’ll have your back. No matter how crazy you are. You can always count on that.

And speaking of playing with a full deck, I learned the fine art of poker from my family. Many a weekend has been spent donating my money to better poker players than myself—usually to my sister-in-law, Jenn. I can’t remember a single family event throughout the years that didn’t culminate in a massive poker game. I am ashamed to admit that I have lost hundreds upon hundreds of dollars playing poker with my siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Occasionally, I will win. Usually not. Some would call this gambling. We call it the family business.

From my family,  I learned humility. There is no one better to bring your self-esteem to its knees than a sister or a close cousin. I remember being told on numerous occasions growing up that I was NOT the boss. I was NOT perfect. I was NOT as smart as I thought I was. I was NOT cute. I was NOT the queen of the freaking world. Just yesterday, my beloved sister said to me, “I’ve really been enjoying reading your blogs. You’re not that funny in real life.” Nice. Thanks to my sisters, I have never developed an inflated ego.

From my family, I learned dignity in the face of opposition. My uncle Joey was the first gay person I ever knew. When I came out, he took me out and bought me Jello shots and a rainbow bracelet. He walked me down the aisle at my wedding. He has been living with AIDS since the 1980s. He has seen horrific sights and felt pain that I can only hope I never experience. Through it all, he has maintained a life of pride and dignity.

My large family taught me responsibility. After my grandfather died, members of my family started chipping in money each month to help pay my grandmother’s expenses. Ruanita and I dutifully mailed home a check each month to contribute to that fund until the day she died. It wasn’t much money at all, but I felt, as a part of a family, that I was responsible for contributing something. She was my grandma that I adored. In my family, we are responsible for one another.

From my aunt, Terri, I learned an invaluable talent—the ability to burp on demand. Though I will never rival her legendary booming belches, my kids get quite a kick out of my talent. It has served me well in life.

I learned  to change a diaper and bandage a boo-boo from my family. Being the eldest granddaughter, I had more than my fair share of babysitting jobs. Those jobs prepared me for the grueling tasks of motherhood. I’ve seen the bare butts of most of my cousins. How many of you can say that?

From my family,  I learned punctuality. My mother made a point of arriving thirty minutes early for church every week. And sitting in the very front row.  As a matter of fact, my mom was usually the very first person to show up for any and every event. Unfortunately, I inherited her eager beaver punctuality. My children have become accustomed to showing up at every event embarrassingly early, and subsequently having to drive around the block multiple times until it is finally appropriate to arrive. I can’t stand being late.

In my immediate family, it was always stressed that I get an education. However, I learned from my extended family the important distinction between being educated and being wise. Wisdom has nothing to do with the number of years you go to school. I learned that common sense will get you further in life than “book” knowledge. I am one of a small handful of college graduates in my family. However, we are certainly no wiser than our counterparts. The ability to judge what is true, right, and lasting—that is real wisdom.

My family taught me humor. Get a couple of beers in us, and we think we are a damn funny bunch. The rest of the world may disagree, but that’s okay. My family taught me the fine arts of sarcasm and oneupmanship. If you show up at one of our poker games, be ready to laugh until your sides hurt. But chances are, you will end up the butt of a joke at some point. Don’t be offended. It means we like you.

From my family, I learned self-control. From the moment I was old enough to hold a beer bottle, my mother has repeatedly informed me that I have a predisposition towards alcoholism. It has been her mantra for years. “You know…you could become an alcoholic very easily.” “You know…alcoholism runs in your family.” “You know…your grandfather on your dad’s side drank himself to death.” “You know…both of your grandfathers were alcoholics.” “You know…I am allergic to alcohol. You probably are, too.” There is probably some truth to my mom’s assertion that my genes carry a predisposposition toward alcoholism. Regardless, it sure was a handy-dandy scare tactic to use on her teenage daughters. To this day, I can’t have more than a glass or two of wine without picturing myself passed out in a cardboard box on the side of the road.

From my family, I learned tactfulness—the ability to bite my tongue. Shut. My. Mouth. There have been a few times when this lesson was learned the hard way. But being in a large family full of diverse, and very strong, personalities, I have finely tuned my inner filter. An invaluable skill.

From  my family, I learned patience. Trying to organize anything at all with a group of 50+ people takes a great deal of patience. Plans get made, changed, made again, and canceled at the last minute. Patience is of utmost importance if you do not want to lose your ever-loving mind.

From my family, I learned acceptance. When I brought Ruanita home, my family welcomed her with open arms. As a matter of fact, I believe they like her better than they like me now. My family is like that though. They have an uncanny ability to make everyone feel welcome and part of the family. I hope I’ve inherited a bit of that.

From my family, I learned impartiality. Trust me, there are battles you just don’t want to get involved in (another preposition, but I no longer give a hoot). I learned to avoid drama at all costs. I now try to keep my home a drama-free zone. Have your domestic wars, but don’t ask me to get involved. Don’t ask me to take sides. I remain impartial. Just call me Switzerland.

I  learned about honor from my family. Like his grandfather and uncles before him, my brother served his country. He joined the Marines out of high school and dutifully went to Iraq when he was called up. Regardless of what I think about the war in Iraq or our motives for getting involved there, I feel nothing but complete and total pride and respect for my baby brother and the other military members of my family. They put their lives on the line. They are the epitome of honor.

While all of these lessons were important, the most crucial thing I learned from my large family was the simple act of loving. I learned to give love unconditionally and to accept it unabashedly, whether I deserved it or not. It’s an amazing feeling to belong to something larger than oneself. Despite its sheer craziness, I would not trade my large family for anything in this world. I am the person I am today entirely because of them.

I only hope my own three children have this same experience of family. I hope my children will one day fondly remember the busyness and craziness of our house.  I hope they appreciate growing up with the mess and the clutter and the noise that often reaches decibels not fit for human ears. I hope they one day smile when they recall our Froot Loop dinners and cold pizza breakfasts. I hope they know momma tried her best, even on her crankiest PMS-ing days. Most importantly, however, I hope with all of my heart that they feel the unconditional love that flows freely through this family. Like me, they are a part of something larger than themselves. Something pretty damn good.

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