D. and I got home last night from the annual Thanksgiving whirlwind to my home state. In some ways, it's the most ridiculous time to visit, because FGS works on a trimester system, and we have exams in the last few days before Thanksgiving. That means that the faculty spend our Thanksgiving "break" grading exams and writing up the end-of-term comments for our students. If you give the very first exam, on Friday afternoon, it's no big deal, but if you have the last exam, on Tuesday morning, as the English department did this year, it means that there's really no "break" at all. (The timing of exams rotates for exactly this reason.)
There was one year when I didn't travel for Thanksgiving because my brother had shingles and my mother had the flu, and it was amazing how luxurious that Thanksgiving break felt.
But I'm determined to keep making this trip, despite the bad timing, because that way I don't have to visit over Christmas. And if Thanksgiving is stressful -- which it is -- it's nothing compared to Christmas, which has all the same stress as Thanksgiving but with the added pressure of gift-giving and religion.
My brother's family enjoys playing games, but those games get really competitive, and my brother always winds up yelling at one or both of his daughters. Plus, whoever isn't playing the game gets left out, and there really isn't much room for conversation during a rousing game of Clue or whatever. And my mother gets stressed out at games spread over her dining room table when she wants to clear it off far in advance of any meal.
So this year, I cleverly bought a puzzle for us to work on instead. I imagined varying groups sitting around the card table set up in the living room, with quiet conversation going on while other people were bustling about in the kitchen. Plus, a puzzle is by definition not competitive; instead, we're all working together to build something beautiful.
"Oh, silly, naive WN!" I now realize. If you're my brother's family, anything can be competitive! My nieces kept bickering about who was adding more pieces, and my brother was very clear that there is one and only one correct way to work on a puzzle, and that the rest of us were doing it wrong. My younger niece and D. had this rather amazing system, in which my niece would say, "Okay, D., I need a piece that is shaped like this and has some purple in it," and D. would find it! (Neither D. nor I is good at puzzles, but it turns out that if you give D. a really specific task, she does it like a champ.) But my brother kept saying, "That's not the right way to do a puzzle. It doesn't work," even though it clearly was working for them. There was one moment in which I actually thought a fight was going to break out over the puzzle. I'd be cursing myself for bringing it, but it was still better than games, and there were actually some moments of peace and enjoyment of working on it, just not when my brother was involved.
The girls and I were also coloring in the coloring books we'd gotten last summer -- a way to keep oneself occupied and amused and yet still being social. You'd think that coloring in a coloring book is something that doesn't have a right or wrong, but once again you'd be wrong! My brother actually yelled at my elder niece because she was working on more than one page in the coloring book. I was too, but he doesn't feel that he can yell at me, although he's not above making scornful comments. Apparently if one has follow-through and commitment, one completely finishes one page before working on another page. I try not to ever disagree with him or his comments in front of the girls, but I did feel moved in this case to comment later that, since coloring is all about having fun and relieving stress, I thought it was just fine to color whatever page was appealing in the moment.
All of which is to say that my brother has become so much like my mother that it's scary. She's actually mellowed over the years and now kind of enjoys other people's doing things wrong, because it lets her feel superior to them. My brother, on the other hand, is like she was when we were growing up, so people's doing things wrong makes him angry. And for both of them, there is always a right and a wrong, and the right way is how they do it.
It's taken me years and years to try to rid myself of this same inclination that there's only one right way to do something, although one difference between me and them has always been that I'm more likely to think that other people are doing things the right way and I'm therefore doing them wrong. But I've worked very hard for a long time to embrace the idea that there are multiple ways of doing and thinking and that more than one of them can be "right." It always takes me a little while to detox from a visit to my family.
At one point during a puzzle argument on Friday, my sister-in-law (who's a calm, sane person, bless her!) started singing under her breath, "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays," which cracked me up. Her sense of humor is definitely the way to get through these family visits, and I appreciated the timely reminder that this visit, like all the others, would pass.
And now I have two days in which to grade, grade, grade. Students return on Tuesday, and I need to have their exams graded and their course grades calculated, not to mention being ready to start Trimester 2. But my reward for all of this family visiting and grading is that in three short weeks, I have two full weeks of winter break that will involve no family visits at all and not much grading.