More than a Rockwell painting
I am sharing a holiday dinner with my family. It is a large group – my wife and I, three daughters, two sons, grandchildren, husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends. We are a strikingly attractive group, a point I make with singular clarity and little conceit, because I see so little of myself in their countenance. That is a good thing.
To the casual observer, we would appear to be the all American family, a living embodiment of a newly mastered Rockwell painting. They would be right – as I’ve said, we’re a good-looking bunch – but they wouldn’t be getting the full picture.
To the world, we may look like a cover off the Saturday Evening Post, but there is a depth to us not found in thin strokes of oil, or the sensibilities of the 1950s. For we are more puzzle-pieced than canvas. It is because our numbers, as well as individuals involved, have changed throughout the years. At last count, the number of separations and divorces within our ranks total more than a handful. It’s certainly nothing to boast about – it just is. So for better or worse, we are far more complex than we first appear.
I grew up in the typical military family, an Air Force brat by rite of birth. My mother stayed at home to watch us kids and my father flew around the world. It was the accepted thing to do, what society demanded of them both. In the end they managed to cobble together a marriage that lasted two years shy of their golden anniversary.
Were my mother and father happy? At times they were – I am witness to that. But was it a good marriage? It’s not for me to say, though I would hazard a guess that the chances of their staying together for the duration would be far less today.
When I was a kid, we never heard of divorce. If there was a rumor about town, it was whispered in hushed tones as if announcing a cancer. The societal push – the right thing to do – was to keep the union whole. It was a concerted effort championed by priests, friends and family.
Growing up, I cannot remember a friend with divorced parents. At one time, my youngest son made the observation that he could not recall a friend whose parents hadn’t divorced – an amazing tidal shift in our society in such a short span. And we wonder why we feel cut adrift as a nation.
So how did we get here? As with everything in one’s life, we made the journey by way of good steps and bad. We stumbled occasionally – made a mess of things. Sometimes we were shoved. Sometimes we did the pushing. Eventually we settle in again, pair up with someone we hope to share a life with. Or, in the end, decide we’re better off alone. My parents stayed together because they had no choice. Today, we drift from each other because we have too many choices.
As for myself, my wife and I met long after the crash of each of our broken marriages had quieted. Over time, we discovered that the pieces we were left to hold fit together perfectly. Hand-in-hand, we refired the kiln and crafted a union stronger than the ones before.
Into this mix we added our children, my two sons and my wife’s three daughters. When we first met, their ages ranged from nine to 18 years. Today, my youngest son is 27 and my oldest daughter is…well you can do the math.
So I have been witness to decades of family celebrations, all very much like what I see before me today. In every instance, I can remember it felt like family, because it was. To stay or to leave are individual choices we all make now. We stay because we want to. We are no longer held with false glue, shepherded by society to maintain a union for union’s sake.
Yes, we have blown up the classic family model. Robert Young, Jane Wyatt, June and Ward Cleaver, are all gone – collateral damage on the road to where we do not know. The group that sits before me today, this gathering of those I love and cherish, is representative of our times. It is a true family portrait. Though not as easy to paint as those in decades past, it still remains as beautiful a rendering.