Family Style

You can order your meal "family-style" at Dyer's BBQ in Pampa which simply means they bring out big portions for sharing. That might be a comfort or treat for some, but I've never cared for that type of meal service. For me, the comfort of a restaurant meal was having your own personally selected plate of food. The treat was simply eating out. The Cleaver's and Brady's made "family style" look good on TV, but our family dinner table always had its share of landmines and bear traps. Transporting all that to a restaurant for public display never seemed like a good idea. I've always been curious about what kind of people would see the "Family Style" on a restaurant sign and say, "That's the place for us!" Ward and June or Mike and Carol, I assume.

That's probably a little harsh. Big family meals are special occasions, one of my favorite things these days, and though the "Family Style" banner still won't make me flip the turn signal and hit the brakes, I do get it. Family is important. It's foundational. It shapes us in ways we never fully appreciate and in ways that would frighten us if we did. It's probably the "style" part that bothers me more than the "family" part. I have two brothers and four sisters. Though none of us have been to prison and we're all functioning, productive members of society, I think it's safe to say that each of us would have a unique opinion on our particular family's "style."

Part of that has to do with when we grew up and who we did it with. Though it was one big family, it always seemed like three separate sets of kids and parents. Jennifer and Billy had the youngest parents. Loretta and Nelda and I had the middle aged parents. Christina and Neil had the old parents. I don't remember much about growing up with Jennifer and Billy. They were grown and gone by the time I could understand much beyond myself. I'm sure that Christina and Neil felt the same about me, especially Neil. I was 13 when he was born and out of the house before he started school. I've always suspected that I left some damaged and worn out parents in my wake for my younger siblings to deal with, and I'm sure the family style changed as a consequence. I'm also sure all seven of us have a different set of take-aways from our formative years.

Neil, Billy, Jennifer, Loretta, Dexter
Christina, Dad, Mom, Nelda
Once upon a time I wrote a letter and mailed it to my parents and each of my siblings. Whether it was leaving college or Texas for a life of my own, or attempting to make peace over some stressful family situation, I do not recall why I wrote it, but it seemed important at the time. In it I tried to describe what I had learned from each of them, explaining in practical terms what they had done for me, how they had unknowingly shaped my growth, honed my skills, smoothed my path. The point was meant to be that they were all valuable to me and that I appreciated them. Looking back I suspect they all read it and thought "Thanks for including me in your therapy session."

The only specific feedback I recall from that letter was Mom's, and she was not pleased. In the letter I attributed my independence and perseverance to Mom and her comment was something along the lines of "That's it? That's all you learned from me? All my sacrifices, all that I gave you and that's all you got out of it?" At that exact moment my relationship with my mother changed. I knew that the effort and sacrifices she felt she had made for me had worked because I didn't get angry. I wasn't hurt. I knew that the things she taught me were the core of what inner strength I had. She couldn't see it, she didn't recognize it. I knew I had learned her lessons well ... hiding your strengths, deflecting instead of engaging, knowing where you stand before speaking, assessing the environment and choosing the best path before acting. The student had surpassed the teacher. I stopped trying to please my mother and started honoring her for what she had given me instead of lamenting about what she had not.

That too probably sounds harsh. I learned much more from Mom ... an artist's eye, the power of history, the necessity in sacrifice, the existence of God and the community of Christ's church ... but in that specific, memorable moment those skills on how to navigate and survive life were my take-away. Over time, with thanks to family and friends, I began using those seemingly harsh skills in a less defensive and more caring way. My life changed from being just a son, to becoming a spouse, a mate, a father, a friend, a follower. Throughout this constant "becoming" process we choose our path and tactics from the lessons and experiences of our past, but that does not mean we are bound by them. As our family grows beyond mom and dad and brothers and sisters we have the opportunity to see new family styles, new ways of becoming, new ways to use our strengths and shore up our weaknesses.

I love my mother. She made me who I am, a bunch of the good and her share of the bad. She smoothed my path, but that doesn't mean she didn't toss a few boulders along the way. It took me a while but I learned not to pick those up and carry them with me; that it was better to push them out of the way or find another path. Often the alternative paths had already been blazed by my siblings, or my expanding family would show me a different perspective that I had not considered before.

My mother loved me, too. I forgave her long ago for whatever obstacles she may have put in my way when I chose to see them as mistakes instead of malice. I have to see it that way because now I have a son and it's the only way to forgive myself for the many mistakes I've made.

Fundamentally my real problem with the concept of "Family Style" is that it is just too rigid. To me it says, "this is how families eat," and frankly, I don't want to get stuck with eating the plain pinto beans because they are the least objectionable to everyone else when there are jalapeno beans on the menu. I realize there is some comfort and security in sticking with "this is how we do it" and "this is what we always eat," but as much as I enjoy home cooking, I don't go to a restaurant to replicate home. I go to restaurants to see how someone else prepares the meal, to see their menu options, to try something new. I learned that from Mom, too.