Much of the time, we treat relatives as obligations: “Yeah, but what can you do? He’s family.”
This year, during the holiday break between December 25 and January 1, the kids and I and Grandma and Grampa piled into a rented minivan and trekked 7 hours to southern New Jersey… where the aunts and uncles and first and second cousins reside. And while I was there, I finally understood why Brothers and Sisters makes me laugh.
But the biggest epiphany I had…
The last time I was in New Jersey was the summer of 1995. It was a year after my grandmother died and a year before my eldest was born. Back then, I knew little about human personality, and even less about how to write fiction. In that time, my entire perspective has changed, and I was honestly amazed at how much real-life character drama passes by right under our noses. The old adage is true: You can get loads of great character ideas by looking at the people around you. Of course, using these character ideas is another matter. But notice just some of the things I noticed about the people in my own family:
My dad, aunt, and cousin talked football for, like, an hour. I mean, I love a good game as much as the next guy. But to debate the sport for a whole hour? Meanwhile, I had a good nap.
One of my aunts is actually afraid of the Internet. This is also the one who has an opinion about everything and would rather tell you what it is than to listen to what you were about to say when the thought occurred to her. (Except that she is proud of the fact that she does not do so when it comes to her team beating the other guy’s team, because she knows he wants her to make a big deal of it, and she knows it’s eating him up inside when she keeps her gloating to herself.) All I had to do was to mention “doing business on the Internet,” and that sparked a tirade that took me completely by surprise. Of course, business is just the first in a long list of things I do on the Internet that makes it indispensable to me. We never got to number 2.
Another aunt has a hundred and one potty jokes that are actually funny. At one point, I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t breathe. I had to stop and focus on my breathing, because I was afraid I would pass out, I was laughing so hard.
Most of my parents’ generation are not Internet savvy. They still happily live without email.
While we were debating the finer points of when it is and is not appropriate to use a cell phone… We were discussing people who talk on the phone while in the car. Ah! I remembered, the Mythbusters did that one, didn’t they? My cousin and I were the only ones who seemed to know about the Mythbusters. But between the two of us, we remembered which episode it was and what they had concluded about talking on the cell phone while driving. (Talking on the cell phone can be worse on your driving than being legally drunk, if you have to split your attention between the road and on the conversation your having on the phone.)
My kids’ second cousin always carries a book with her and is always reading it. She’s not even in high school yet. Can you say “Rory Gilmore”? Yikes!
My uncle tends to forget things my aunt has told him, which drives her up the wall. They’re still together, though, and they’ll never get divorced.
And me! I can’t stand it when incompatible food items touch on my plate. I mean, it’s okay for my turkey, stuffing, and gravy to slosh together. Because they go together. But keep the gravy out of my potato salad or cranberry sauce!
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Actually, the trip inspired me at almost every turn. Indeed, it is true that the best ideas come from real life.
Of course, the most touching realization is that no matter how much your family makes you laugh, it’s always hardest when you have to say goodbye. We’ll have to go back soon and visit again.
P.S. That is, if they haven’t disowned me after this post.
P.P.S. I picked up a bunch of postcards from my trip. I’d be happy to send you one. Just click here to email me, and ask for a postcard from Longwood Gardens. First come, first serve, and I can’t get any more until who-knows-when. So if you’d like a free postcard, email quick.