Playing the Part

I have always loved, and I mean LOVED Christmas movies that center around families with grown children coming home for the holidays (The Family Stone being my favourite of this genre). I mean, I generally love Christmastime in real life, and in film, and I’m a sucker for nostalgia of any kind, but there’s something special about movies that seem to hit me where I live, ya know?

My siblings and me, standing in birth order (probably unintentionally), making a (probably disgusting) sandwich for Santa, circa early 1980s

I come from a large, close-knit family, a constellation of people simultaneously of our parents and complete individuals. And, like any family who has grown up in the same household, there are certain roles that everyone plays, unwittingly or not.  Much of it has been dictated by our respective personalities and birth order as we were growing up and becoming real people, but some of it is determined by a comfort level, a tacit understanding of an established dynamic that, for whatever reason, everyone (including our parents) kind of silently agrees to uphold when the family is all together. Even though we are all adults, and lead our lives independently of our family unit, or the “original six” as I refer to us, when we’re all together, try as we might to hold onto who we are in our “real life,” there is something that happens, a crossing over of an invisible vortex when we enter my parents’ house, the one we all grew up in, that sucks us back in, like magnets, to the roles we play in the family. And it’s particularly strong at Christmas. Perhaps because it’s such a sentimental holiday and there are so many memories attached to it. Or perhaps my parents put something in the turkey, who knows?!

One of the most brilliant things about the movie The Family Stone is the way this gradual, but inevitable, falling back into the established dynamic is played out visually. Everett, the eldest son who arrives home for Christmas with his uptight, not-exactly-warm girlfriend, gradually goes from appearing as a very slick, pulled-together, suit and tie guy (who he is in his “real life” or at least, who he presents himself to be) to a rumpled, more casual, probably more authentic Everett. It’s a small detail that I appreciate because it’s so relatable. It happens with all the characters, to an extent, but this cinematic trope has always struck me in a particular way because it’s so telling. It’s telling both of the plot and underlying messages of the movie, but also of the ways in which our upbringing and innate personalities inform who we become (which, if you’ve read this blog at all, you know fascinates and thrills me).

As I’ve written before, in one way or another, my role in the family is largely, but not limited to, the Eccentric One, the creative, does-everything-slightly-differently, even dramatic (although I hate that word and reject this personification!) one. I’m also the one who gets bossed around the most. I’m the one who, when my mom asks one of us to go down to the freezer in the basement to get a loaf of bread, my siblings look at expectantly. I’m the one who gets relegated to the uncomfortable futon in the office downstairs (which used to be my bedroom). To be fair though, it’s not like I argue or object to it. I just shrug my shoulders and willingly lug my suitcase downstairs and try not to complain too much about my sore back in the morning. See? In my family, I just do what I’m told!

I’m the one in charge of arranging the gifts under the tree, because if anyone else does it, I’ll just rearrange them anyway (which isn’t necessarily true, but I did do that once or twice, so now it’s written in stone, you see). I even have a designated seat at the family dinner table – to the right of my mom – because I’m the gofer, the helper, the one who gets up from the table and gets whatever anyone needs throughout the meal (which, in my house, lasts hours). I’m the one who clears the table, makes the coffee, sets out the desserts and plates and coffee cups and oh, the drink refills! So many drink refills! And this is not a complaint, I swear! This is just the reality, although I’m not sure how this exactly came to be. I certainly don’t remember ever saying, “Hey Mom, I’ll sit beside you and volunteer to get all the stuff that everyone needs, OK?!” I’m sure it just evolved, as most things do…Anyway, if I were to object to this, if I were to say, “You know what, guys? I think I’ll try sitting on the other side of the table this year,” it would upset the world order and we all might get sucked into a black hole.

It’s just so funny, isn’t? Sister #2, who is married and owns a home and has a life and career and all the things that mark her as a fully formed adult, admits to, in her own words “reverting back into a child” when she’s home. My eldest sister quite easily falls back into being the strong (if slightly bossy) matriarch of the second generation Peterses and assumes her role as the wise-cracking, sarcastic, teasing big sister, subtly reminding us that, despite our battle cry to the contrary growing up, she is indeed, the boss of us. And my brother, my big, strong, boisterous, story-telling, alpha-male brother, who is very commanding as a boss in his real life, has many moments where he can’t get a word in edgewise because his sisters are talking, and he better remember the pecking order as the baby of the family.

But, you know what? All jokes and role-description aside, the dynamic doesn’t take over, and it’s not like we’re all sitting around, miserable or bitter that we’re sort of rendered the children and teenagers we were when we all lived under the same roof. While it’s clear what everyone’s role is, it’s also just a subtle undercurrent and relatively fluid, and for the most part, there are many great moments when the four of us siblings interact like the friends we truly are, outside of those predetermined roles. We talk about our lives now, catch up with each other, we reminisce about when we were kids, we talk about our grandparents who aren’t with us anymore, telling stories about them to the nieces and nephew so they can know from whom they came. And we laugh, oh man, do we laugh! Mostly because Sister #2 is hilarious, and frequently reduces us all to fits of laughter, but we all have our  funny moments.

It feels like laughter is the 7th family member sometimes. It’s so good for the soul. We all know it feels good, but did you know that laughter does things, physically, psychologically and physiologically for us? Much like singing, as I’ve written about before, laughter is restorative. In fact, did you know that Laughter Yoga is a thing? I didn’t know it was a thing until a very good friend of mine embarked on a career in it. It makes so much sense though, doesn’t it? No wonder I feel most bonded with my family when we’re laughing.

Anyway, a wonderful thing happened this Christmas. Our big Christmas feast was done, the plates were cleared (by yours truly, of course) and dessert and coffee were served. My sisters and brother and I were sitting around the table chatting and laughing, and we decided to play a music trivia game that someone had gotten as a gift. I was the reader of the questions, and the other three were the answerers. We weren’t playing the game proper; we were just reading the questions to see who knew what and to have some fun. Anyway, as I read the questions, and my sisters and brother answered, I don’t know exactly what happened, what magical switch flipped, or what was in the air, but it was Just.SO.Funny. I honestly don’t remember the last time I laughed that hard. Tears were streaming down my face because I was laughing so hard and I got one of the laughter-headaches  you get from laughing too hard for too long. We were SO loud, shrieking and yelling, and just all laughing so hysterically. It’s like we were all on this other plane of consciousness or something. One of my sisters actually thought she was going to pee her pants right there at the table.

It was a moment, one of those moments that I’ll probably remember for the rest of my life. And it’s not like this kind of thing has never happened before (in fact, it happens quite frequently in my family), but I don’t know, maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, or it was the combination of being at home, with my family, hanging out with my siblings who I love so very much, the feeling of being reunited, of being home, it was as if that moment was…just complete perfection. It’s been a hard year for our family. A hard couple of years, if I’m being honest – lots of ups and downs and challenges for us individually and as a family (because, really, if one of us faces something difficult, we all face it). But, that laughter, that gut-wrenching, tears-down-your-face, make-you-pee-your-pants laughter with the people who know you better than anyone else in the world, regardless of the extent to which you might be playing a role developed for you when you were a child, is what it’s all about in my opinion.

In my family, we talk a lot (shocking, I know!), and we like to tease each other a lot. And Christmastime is no exception. We often reminisce fondly about the Christmas when Sister #2 stepped in the pie, or the Christmas when Little Brother peed in ALL the beds, or the Christmas when I fell backwards into the tree because of too much Amaretto.

I have a feeling this Christmas will always be remembered as the Christmas Big Sis almost peed her pants from laughter.