Extended Vs. Nuclear Families

There can be a dark side to family get-togethers ... and a bright side to winter blizzards.
By Carol Bly
January/February 1984
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I have been thinking about the positive side of a Minnesota blizzard. [One] of the blessings is that extended-family occasions come to a halt. Thank goodness. The extended-family dinner is a threat to the pleasure and ease of the American farm family, yet it is hard to say so. In Minnesota we are great protectors of the American family—just as we are one of the last areas in which the small "family farm" idea works and is sacred. We are right about this. The nuclear family is far the best of all the units human beings organize themselves into; when you break it down, its members inevitably pursue lesser, not greater, aims. They settle for cheaper values. Jung says that, when the family breaks, the adult members tend to be frozen at the level of consciousness at the moment of the break. On a less subtle level, people begin following their own noses with more abandon. Experiment takes the place of solid satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of thinking hard.

In the country, family means father, mother, children, and the grandparents; extended family would mean all the above plus the cousins, the uncles, the grownup in-laws on a lot of sides. These relations tend still to be living near one another, and often a farm couple's first five or six Christmases together will be spent in their presence.

The extended-family goals are not the nuclear-family goals; what nourishes extended-family society is starvation fare for the nuclear family. Here is how it works. If people are eccentric and verbal and curious about other lifestyles, then the extended-family dinner plus afternoon plus supper plus afterward is a cheerful, messy, engaging, affectionate business even when it does drag on all day (as it always does). But if people are shy or harassed or not perfectly confident about their accomplishments, then the extended-family holiday is informed by some misery along with the Jell-O and fruit and Rice Krispies bars.

My suspicion is that prairie families have been ruing these large, hearty, 100 percent threatening occasions for over a century now, but no one dares say anything because it sounds mean—and it does sound awfully mean to say you don't want the whole family back over this year. If you took a poll with promise of utter secrecy, I feel sure the vote would be 98 percent "We should have gathered only two times instead of four times this year because I was never so tense or bored in my life" and 2 percent "Well, Merv and LaVonne had them last year, so we figured it was up to us to have them all this year". Such remarks never get made aloud, however, because our general cultural stance in the countryside is that we wish people "neighbored" more, the way they used to, and we wish families were sticking together more, the way they used to. Who can imagine Laura Ingalls Wilder wishing the folks were not all going to show up? In other words, we are torn about this.

I will describe what works badly in big family occasions. Unlike lions and dogs, we are a dissenting animal. We need to dissent in the same way that we need to travel, to make money, to keep a record of our time on earth and in dream, and to leave a permanent mark.

For that kind of thinking and feeling we need gravity. We need a chance to be slow, turbid, and grave. Nothing could be worse for this than to be desperately busy all week, week in, week out, at hard physical work and then have a whole valuable, holy holiday taken up by an extended-family occasion. There is little chance to talk about anything. If one says, "Well, the Farmers Union has an interesting project on hand-they're bringing the humanities to nontraditional audiences," a responsible hostess is likely to respond: "Oh—if you're going to talk politics then . . ." And if one says, "You know, I often wonder what happens in that bourn from which no traveller returns—you know? I mean, what dreams'll come when we've shuffled off etc.?", a responsible hostess might say, "Oh, for morbid . . ." I don't know why it is that in large family gatherings it is morbid to discuss life after death, whereas it is good, workable smalltalk to discuss accidents involving young fathers and bailing-wire winders on their tractors, or the mutilation of cattle by some occult group.

The traditional weapon against time wasting by the extended family was the nineteenth- and twentieth-century prep, or public, school. School was valued as a higher loyalty than the family. Honoring family was a given; a sign of growing up was to have a school to honor. Country was to follow. The loyalty that would have made the young person sit around and nod politely throughout Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, to the cheer of Aunt LaVonne and Uncle Merv, went instead to the school, or to the Army; it is acceptable to rise from a foundering dinner of turkey with "Sorry, people, but I've an exam to study for! Wish I hadn't!" or "Sorry people, I have to pack, I'm supposed to be at Fort Bragg tomorrow!", whereas it doesn't work the other way round: no one writes Headmaster Sizer that they'll be back at Andover a few days late because Merv and LaVonne and their kids are here from Colorado Springs. And apparently guardhouses and brigs are kept in business by people who try on such explanations in the armed services.

A drawback to Midwest rural life has been our serious need to "neighbor," which has locked us into rather more of the extended family social life than is good for us. We feel torn about this: there was something great in the coming and going of neighbors from pioneer times right up to World War II. Yet it is a terrific relief not to have these invasions—which tend to last for hours. And so we have developed some minor, peripheral social occasions which very few city people could guess at. On Sunday mornings, a couple of men spend an hour parked in one of their snow-cleared farmyards. A farmer drives his heated pickup over to the neighbor's farmyard, and waits for his friend to out and join him in the cab. They sit there for a while, warmed by the heater, listening to the calm engine. They don't want the house; the house is given over to the conventional things—preparation of Sunday dinner, going to Sunday school. They sit with some beer in the pickup. It is very important, because they are outside convention and also free of work. Another place like that, at another season, is the unused stall of the 4-H buildings at the county fair. Somehow people have found a few straw bales left, and skewed them around into a circle, and they can really talk. In the next stall the heavy Hereford stands; just looking at him you can tell it isn't enough to be of nature. We were meant to work out ideas. The city person who retires to country life hasn't the problem of the regular country resident: his situation is free of extended family. No one expects him to show up for New Year's Day dinner and then stay all the afternoon and then eat leftover turkey.

There are conversations that can kill: "Ja, you can sure tell there's more snow coming from where that came from" or "You're a lot safer in a jet than you are on U.S. 212, I don't care what they say."

The problem with the above remarks is not that they're untrue or dull: it is that one can't reply, "To tell you the truth, I think I'm on the other side of that one." It is impossible to dissent.

Why all the fuss about dissenting? Educators, beginning with Piaget, I think, tell us firmly that the mind literally is changed, evolved, by the act of conceiving a new idea. It's no longer the same mind. We all need to have this experience; so apparently we need hours and hours of conceptualizing. We have finally got it through our heads, too, that what one class of people needs, all the classes of people have a right to. It isn't just Beethoven who needs silence and gravity: it's all of us. And that means, especially for most of us who are madly moonlighting to make enough money, that it is cruel to waste our precious winter holidays with structured family gatherings.

The true good of blizzards is that Mervin and LaVonne get to stay in Colorado Springs and we get to stay at home without them. The schoolbus can't get through, so the children are home. No one can get out to work, so the adults are home. There is no conventional structure for nuclear-family-behavior-during-blizzards, so we face one another with delight and surprise. Anything gets said. The closeness, as the wind screams around the light pole and builds up its incredible drifts, which later we will tunnel, is absolutely lovely. If whoever of us, like Hamlet, should now wonder aloud how it is without the mortal coil, no one need kill that with "Oh, for morbid!" because the house is full of confidence. Dozens of times I've heard farm men and women mention how cozy it was during the storm—"We did whatever we liked; we talked a lot."

Most people have to worry about money most of the time, and then the relations dictate the holiday agenda. There is a lot of conscience in rural Minnesota, too. We stick by the cousins and uncles. So it is wonderful when the blizzards come and set us into an extraordinary situation.

Puritans need the extraordinary situation.


 EDITOR'S NOTE: From the book Letters from the Country by Carol Bly. 


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