Quality Time With the Relatives

(Originally published in Main Line Life on 12/17/08)

You have only yourself to blame. In a moment of weakness – perhaps it was the one-hundredth viewing of White Christmas with Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby that did it. Perhaps you had had more than your usual two glasses of red wine. Perhaps it was during the part in the movie where Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen sing Sisters, and inspired by the red wine you called your own sister during the song, turned up the television full blast, and held your phone up to the speaker so she could hear it.
Or maybe one night you were looking for last year’s Christmas card list, when you stumbled upon a forgotten shoebox full of Christmas cards. Peering at the family photos on the cards, you determine that these cards are from about seven years ago. You meant to go through them at some point and organize them into a “save” pile and a “toss” pile (you’ve been meaning to do this with many things in your life), but now here they are. And you realize your children haven’t really gotten to know their cousins from Mudflat, Montana or their Aunt Lillian from Des Moines.

And in a fit of familial good feelings, you call your sister and maybe your aunt and utter those fateful words, words that can never be taken back, “You should visit us for the holidays. We have plenty of room. We’d love to see you!”


For the purposes of our discussion, let’s call these distant, rarely seen, yet tied-to-us-by-fate-and-birth-family-members The Relatives.

The Relatives are often great lovers of surprises. In my family, my own parents were quite often known to show up with nary a moment’s notice. (I lived in southern California at the time, and they lived in Olympia, Washington).

The Relatives never travel at times normal people travel. Their plane always arrives at 11:30 p.m. and departs at 6:00 a.m. “Don’t worry about us, though! We can make our own way to your place. We don’t want to be any trouble. We can just hop on a bus from the airport. Honest, we wouldn’t dream of having you pick us up/drive us back.”

The Relatives do not experience household climate control the way you do. It’s always either too cold – “Brrr… I’m fine, really, could I borrow another sweater to put over this one?” Or it’s too hot for their liking. “We never put our thermostat above forty-eight degrees. Your heating bill must be sky-high! No problem, though – we don’t want to be any trouble! We’ll just sit out on the patio and get some fresh air.”

Before they arrive, you ask The Relatives if they have any special dietary considerations. The answer is always, “No, we’re fine with whatever you’ve got. We’re not the slightest bit picky!” Two hours after they arrive you are at Whole Foods with a list of acceptable vegan foods for your niece, a printout of the Atkins diet from your sister, and a request for two cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer for your brother-in-law (only if it’s not too much trouble).

The Relatives love to make conversation about stuff in your house, kind of like they are on a new planet seeing things for the first time. “Wow, is that one of those flat screen TVs?” “Pillow shams? Fancy schmancy! An electric fireplace! Bet that uses a lot of electricity!”

They also like to make comments about your funny way of doing things, versus their more sensible way. “Didn’t you only have that last car for ten years? You could have gotten something with better mileage.” “I read in Consumer Reports that that new stove isn’t rated all that well. But I suppose it’s too late now.” “Did you know that sleeping without a pillow is better for you? And there are so many on our bed!” “I just read in the paper that that toothpaste causes cancer.”

You give The Relatives a local guidebook with highlights of places to visit while they are here. Also, the keys to your car and the launch schedule. They look stricken, like you’ve asked them to chip in and pay for the fourteen pizzas their teenage son has ordered. “Well, we wouldn’t dream of leaving you here by yourselves at the holidays! After all, we came to spend time with you!”

So you ride the R-5 into town with them and look at the Liberty Bell and take photos on the steps of the Art Museum like you are all Rocky, and eat a big greasy cheese steak.  And it’s not as bad as you thought it would be. In fact, it’s kind of fun.

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