A Family Functions

On a desperately hot afternoon, when smart beach-goers had forsaken the charms of sun, sand and sea for air conditioning and frosty beverages, a pair of dolphins appeared a quarter-mile off the shore of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The larger dolphin surfaced and disappeared several times, it’s black dorsal fin and back sliding gracefully through the water. But the smaller dolphin erupted from the surface like a Polaris missile and crashed back into the water with an enormous splash. Moments later, he exploded into the air 20 yards away, spun to expose his shiny underside to the sun and slammed happily into the ocean on his back.

Five times in a matter of minutes he did this, like a toddler stamping happily in a puddle. That I say "he" is supposition, of course, supported primarily by my own circumstances.

I was at the beach with my brothers and their families, which includes four nephews and two nieces. My nephews, ages 10 to 16, fought rubber-band-gun wars, played Game Boy, romped in the waves, built sand structures and threw water balloons from the top floor deck at family and strangers alike.

My nieces, on the other hand, went shopping, laid in the sun, swam demurely, watched television and shopped some more.

So, for my money, the dolphin was male, and was emblematic of special and memorable week.

Two years ago, I realized that my daughters, both of them adult, married and mothers-to-be, scarcely knew their uncles and their families. There were many reasons for this relationship drift, none of them worth mentioning. But as the father and oldest brother, I felt responsible for allowing it to happen and doing something to reverse it.

I wrote a letter to everyone laying out my concern, taking full responsibility for the problem and saying I hoped that we could remedy the situation as soon as possible. The response was positive, and last summer my older daughter and her family joined my brothers and I for two days at our annual beach together. This year, both daughters announced they would be there and had rented a house half a block away.

I thought about the vacation a lot before it began, and not without apprehension. There is a saying in my men’s group that every family with more than one member is, by definition, dysfunctional, and ours is no exception.

My brothers and I are the sons of a stoic, strict and unyielding man. A highly successful man, a good man, a man of integrity, but in many ways a hard case. Although he mellowed as he aged, and was a different father to my three younger brothers than he was to his older sons, he never truly revealed himself or showed even a hint of vulnerability.

Our environment was neither affirming nor particularly positive. And in a big family where love was in short supply, competition was the dominant dynamic, although it was veiled by a façade which suggested we were too cool and composed to care.

Despite our affection for each other, that dynamic hasn’t changed much. Every morning at the beach, two of my sisters-in-law went for a bike ride before breakfast. Three of the four brothers also rode bikes during the week, but not once did anyone say to another brother, "Hey, want to go for a bike ride?"

In my unofficial role as family analyst, I concluded that I was at least partially responsible for perpetuating this mentality. I can be very social, but I need solitude to re-charge, and I have at times gone to extremes to isolate myself from my brothers.

I was emotionally estranged from the family for a few years after marrying as a teenager, and 15 years ago was so angry with all of them — or so I thought — that I refused to see or speak to any of my brothers for two years.

When we reconciled, when I realized that the issues were mine, not theirs, every one of them welcomed me back and, knowing I was going through a hard patch, offered financial support. For my part, I’ve made it a point to offer  love and warmth in a climate that is still chilly to the expression of feelings.  I hug everyone, affirm my nephews and nieces, and even kiss my brothers on the cheek.

So to see everyone smiling and laughing last week in the great room of our beach house was nothing less than a dream come true. I had a lump in my throat as I stood on the arm of a couch — the only vantage point where I could get them all in the lens — snapping photos of them laughing and talking. Of nephew Eric, 10, hauling my 2-year-old grandson McRae around. Of my daughters chatting with aunts and uncles, my brothers chuckling with my sons-in-law, my sister-in-law beaming at my granddaughter Regan.

It wasn’t perfect. A brother and his wife haven’t joined us in years, and a cousin and aunt couldn’t attend this year. But we’ve never had a gathering this big for something other than a funeral, and when I wasn’t choked with emotion I felt like that joyful, leaping dolphin. 

To respond, click below on "Post a comment." To contact me directly, send an email to jc@johnchristensnonline.com.


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