Emily Articulated: family gatherings

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

This past weekend, I flew to Boise to join my partner and his family in celebrating his brother’s college graduation. Showing up for one another’s big moments is one of my favorite things about the family I’m marrying into — each member taking the job of celebrating seriously and with panache. 

“Do you think we’ll need cowbells, or will whistles be enough?” they schemed, planning a cheering strategy for filling the few moments of dead space between the announcement of their graduate’s name and the next. (They settled on recruiting a row of strangers behind us to add volume to our collective cheers.)

After the ceremony, my partner, his two siblings and both sets of parents (along with a few friends and stragglers) gathered together around the big living room of a rental house —the din of conversations amplified by high ceilings and the crinkle of another cracker bag being torn open. I scanned their faces before turning to the person next to me to ask, “When was the last time you got together like this?”

Emily Erickson. Courtesy photo.

Like so many families — mine included — their members are scattered around the country and count themselves lucky to muster a reunion once every few years, tallying four or five such times in the past decade. Before I could divert it, I had the thought, “If things stay as they are, a gathering like this may only happen a dozen more times; and that’s if we’re lucky.”

I kept this to myself because, aside from offering a glimpse into the slightly morbid way my brain can operate, it was almost guaranteed to bring down the mood.

Albeit intrusive, this thought illustrated the inherent trickiness of family gatherings or get-togethers of any kind to which sentiment is attached: They are limited. 

However, being too conscious of that finitude comes with a grip on reality so firm that it can choke the joy out of the experience of sharing time together. But the alternative — not being conscious of the fleeting and precious nature of our shared time — risks us taking it wholly for granted when it is happening.

I know parents with young kids regularly grapple with this dichotomy — of being joyfully present while anticipating change and the passing of time marked by the rapid pace of their children’s development. Reminders of this ephemerality (along with a healthy dose of guilt) are plastered on Facebook posts and Instagram Reels, with sentiments like, ”You only get 18 summers, so make them count,” and, “75% of the time we spend with our kids in our lifetime will be spent by age 12,” overlaid by sepia-toned beach photos or set to the tune of “Little Life” by Cordelia.

But when time isn’t being marked by developmental milestones, and change doesn’t have a moniker like “terrible twos,” we tend to forget that things cannot stay as they are forever, especially in families or among precious groups of people. Instead, it seems to be a default setting in the human condition to think that there will always be a next time.

Maybe, for my generation anyway, we come by the perceived guarantee of “next time” honestly, as a reaction to the demands of the “Fear-Of-Missing-Out” and “You-Only-Live-Once” culture in which we grew up. We burned ourselves out by pushing past our physical and emotional limits to maximize our engagement with the world (nothing a Redbull can’t fix, right?), so now we’re forced to reckon with an overwhelming urge to opt for solitary self-care nights and “I’m not feeling up for it” days in, all so as to recharge our social batteries.

But when it comes to the ever-changing dynamics of people in groups, especially families, and the ongoing organizational hurdles that make wrangling them increasingly difficult, these “next times” aren’t guarantees and can’t be expected, especially in perpetuity. So we’re forced to hold two things at once: the reality that change is inevitable and time is fleeting, and that presentness and levity are required to fully enjoy the invaluable time we still have together.

Perhaps in the balance between both realities is the ability to know things will not always be this way; and, also, that whatever shape life together takes next will be just as worth cherishing, too.

Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.

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