Someone once said, a man shouldn’t be judged by the company he keeps, especially if they are his in-laws. In my case, I hope I am judged by my in-laws, as there is no greater company I could keep. This past month my wife was in charge of her family’s reunion. Her family has one every three years, and since both her parents have died, the responsibility for the reunion now falls to my wife and each of her five siblings on a rotating basis. We started with the oldest sibling. Since my wife is the fifth child, four others preceded hers. All the reunions in the past have consisted of an afternoon or evening at a pavilion at a park or at a church where we’d meet, socialize, and eat for three to four hours. But since my immediate family is the only one that lives in Texas, we had to plan an event that would be worth the extended family traveling all the way to Texas in the middle of the summer heat. So we planned two days of “mandatory” activities, and suggested other activities for the days immediately before and after the actual reunion. And come they did. Out of a possible approximately 125 family members, about 100 come, with ages ranging from 75 years old to five months.
Our theme was “Putting the FUN in dysfunctional since 1942!” Our theme turned out to be only half true. We had loads of fun, but no dysfunction. Since movies about families generally emphasize quirks, dysfunction and drama, I don’t see many movies about our family coming to a theater near you. But that is a good thing.
In the days after the reunion, I have reflected on what makes a “together” family. No family is perfect, but functional families tend to have some traits in common. Perhaps first and foremost is respect for each other. Almost all traits of a functioning family grow out of respect for one another. One of my all-time favorite movies is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.[i] After the death of his father, Gilbert must care for his mentally challenged brother and his extremely overweight mother. The Grape family has every reason to be dysfunctional, but somehow they make it work, although like most families, not always smoothly. Gilbert demonstrates his respect for Arnie, his mentally challenged brother, by always having his back, even when it is not always convenient. Here is Gilbert’s promise to his younger brother:
Gilbert also has great respect and love for his mother, even though she is so overweight that she spends day and night on a couch in the living room, where the basement underneath her has to be reinforced to bear her weight. At one point, though, Gilbert becomes overwhelmed by all his responsibilities, and leaves home. But he comes back. Here is my favorite scene from the movie:
Toward the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), Gilbert’s mom decides to to walk upstairs to her bedroom for the first time in many years. But the strain on her body is too much and she dies in bed that night. The police come, and tell Gilbert that it would take many men, maybe even the whole National Guard, to get her out of the house. Gilbert and his siblings realize that her removal would draw a gawking crowd and, out of respect for their mother, they decide to protect her from becoming a spectacle, even in death. They empty the house except for their mother’s body, then Gilbert sets the house on fire, in effect cremating her.
Do we love and respect our family members even though they might look, act or have opinions different than our own? Functional families should be a place where individuality and differences of opinions are respected and encouraged. In a fun scene from The Break Up,[ii] Gary and Brooke’s families join them for an awkward dinner:
Although a silly scene, we can learn some great things about functional families from this scene. A great musical composition requires individual instruments or voices, but working in harmony, they make beautiful music together. Families should be the same way. Differences should be applauded, not ridiculed. A high school friend of mine, running for student body president, had the campaign slogan of “unity through individuality.” That should be the slogan of our families as well.
This scene also emphasizes the importance of the dinner table in families. A family that eats together stays together. Functional families have clear communications and open discussions. There is no better place for that to happen than around the dinner table. And it is (or at least should be) a safe place for family to discuss anything without fear of punishment or retribution. I just hope your family dinners go better than this one from This is 40:[iii]
But at least they had an open conversation!
In the final analysis, have we developed enough faith and trust within our families that we will take leaps into the unknown for each other, trusting there is a family member waiting to catch us? And are we loving enough that we will walk a high wire to rescue a family member in need? Perhaps this scene from Despicable Me[iv] says it all:
Although no family is perfect, may each of our families be good enough – good enough that each family member feels safe, loved, valued and appreciated, so that, as my in-laws would say, we can “weather together whatever.”
[i] What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
- Production Company: Paramount Pictures
- Director: Lasse Hallstrom
- Screenwriter: Peter Hedges
- Starring: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio and Julliette Lewis
- Release date: March 4, 1994
[ii] The Break Up
- Production Company: Universal Pictures, Mosaic Media Group and Wild West Picture Show Productions
- Director: Peyton Reed
- Screenwriter: Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender
- Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston and Jon Favreau
- Release date: June 2, 2006
[iii]This is 40
- Production Company: Apatow Productions and Forty Productions
- Director: Judd Apatow
- Screenwriter: Judd Apatow
- Starring: Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann
- Release date: December 21, 2012
[iv] Despicable Me
- Production Company: Universal Pictures, Illumination Entertainment
- Director: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
- Screenwriter: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Sergio Pablos
- Starring: Steve Carrel, Jason Segel and Russell Brand
- Release date: January 14, 2011