It’s nearly Memorial Day. My three teenage children have a long weekend, and I, for one, am looking forward to them doing a lot of chores and yard work. Because that is totally a normal thing to expect your family to do when you’re working and they’re not, right?
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It helps that I literally hold the keys to their freedom and can cajole/bribe them into at least doing the dishes and vacuuming. I’m also giving them fuel for the stories they will tell later in life to their future spouses and children about how strange their childhoods were. Seriously, when was the last time someone said to you, “My family was totally normal in every way”? Everyone has weird stories, like how their mom snuck granola into the Lucky Charms and believed her children wouldn’t notice, or that their grandfather never ever took the first parking spot he would see.
Family and holidays go together. The kickoff of summer this weekend means more than just barbecues and kids draped around the house all day telling you they’re bored. For many of us, it means spending time with family—and extended family. Two days with your husband and kids in the car so that you can spend a week sleeping on a leaky air-mattress at your in-laws’ house makes for some awfully memorable times—emphasis on the “awful.” And yet, there’s something in the telling and retelling of these memories that can make even the worst moments shine with humor.
Wade Rouse’s memoir It’s All Relative takes a look at the ties that bind us together with both our families of origin and the families we form as adults. What I love most about this book, aside from the sheer joy his stories have brought me—Rouse is a very funny man—is his recognition of the love and support that underlies a lot of family wackiness. “All families are dysfunctional, especially during the holidays,” he says. “I was deeply loved. And scarred.”
Rouse tackles the holidays—all of them, even Arbor Day and Ash Wednesday. His book is arranged to follow the year from New Year’s Eve through the December holiday letter, sometimes writing more than one entry per holiday, including a story from his childhood to more recent celebrations. The stories range from hilarious to heart-wrenching. Like the Halloween when his mother decided to educate the population of his tiny Appalachian town by sending him out as a Ubangi tribesman (politically incorrect but modeled on a National Geographic article). Or his Memorial Day description of his partner, Gary, presenting Wade’s mother with a bouquet of peonies, her mother’s favorite flower and grown from starts she gave Gary. Wade’s mother sinks to her knees and sobs. His description of Santa’s visits to his Appalachian home is side-splitting; his accounts of dog adoption (Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month) or spending a Thanksgiving volunteering at a homeless shelter are heartwarming and thoughtful. Some stories incite laughter and tears simultaneously.
One of the best in the book is his account of taking his parents on a trip to Ireland (Father’s Day). Rouse grew up in a small town in the Ozarks and spent years distancing himself from his childhood accent. Traveling with his parents in public, he cringes at his mother’s cheerful, colorful and very loud abuse of his father, doing his best to pretend he’s not with them.
Later, when his father has a heart attack, and his mother and father are obviously worried and whispering insults at each other to feel better, Rouse realizes the depth of their love for each other and the depth of his love for them. It’s pitch-perfect, a story that will have you shouting with laughter, mentally apologizing to your father-in-law for considering him the weirdest American man until now and wiping tears at the same time.
As Rouse says in his author’s note, “To spend a holiday with family, especially mine…is a lot like self-catheterization: it’s an experience that may cause extreme pain, something you may not always wish to revisit, but one that you’ll never forget.”
Just from reading his book, I’ll never forget his family either. But I’ve also gained a new appreciation for my own.
Elizabeth D. Jones has loved reading for just about as long as she's had a cognitive memory, and she loves working with the 5 Minutes for Books team. She is an ESL teacher who has lived and worked around the world with her husband and three kids. She blogs about adjusting back to life in the U.S. at Planet Nomad.