“Dysfunctional” Family?

Either Ozzie Nelson was left a lot of money or he made an imaginary income, but we know that he left the house. Harriet with pearls around her neck raised their two sons when only one mattered, Ricky Nelson. So goes how the American family was portrayed on television, modeling for us what a family looks like and how they act. How many of life’s situations can be addressed and solved in only twenty-three minutes.

Robert Young arrives home from a real job and his waiting wife and three children are waiting in the living room as though they’ve been waiting for him for eight hours. He arrives home and there’s gleeful Jane Wyatt easily replacing his sport coat with patches on the elbows with his evening sweater with patches on the elbows. His children eagerly welcome him back home – Lauren Chapin, Elinor Donahue, and Billy Gray. Their TV version of family life is settled in those same twenty-three minutes and living up to the program’s title, “Father Knows Best.”

These were my growing up TV shows that influenced and represented for me what American family life looks like and acts like. Not to mention “The Beaver,” who was very influential for me – Eddie Haskel remains a hero for me. He’s an early version of the Fonz character.

(“Leave It To Beaver,” opening theme song, 11 seconds)

Today’s TV families seem to have children who advise and direct the parents, as though their parents don’t know anything; as though that’s real life. At my family’s Christmas gathering last Wednesday, my great-nieces and nephews (1 to 3 years old) are running around and yelling as though they know what they’re doing with doting parents smiling away at their crazy antics. I turned to my 65-year-old sister and said, “We would never have gotten away with this.” She smiled back at me.

The late 70’s and 80’s roll around and suddenly psychology introduces us to a shocking revelation. A new word added to a centuries year old gathering of progenies. “Dysfunctional.” It temporarily gave my family’s world a word to toss around as though we needed a tossable word. “I’m the way I am because of my weird parents!” (My words. The authors had nicer and nastier words for parental actions and behavior.)

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for that forever, unending TV (human) show featuring no one else than that sorry-you in that formidable age-old game show called ‘The Blame Game.’ It’s the show where no one wins and everybody loses. Isn’t that great! I’m Johnnie Olsen, your friendly announcer. We have today in our studio audience a captured audience of … ‘one.’ Please note the word, ‘captured.’ Our parting gift today is, ‘Head and Shoulders’ shampoo because there’s no heart and soul to be found in our product nor in the host and guest. Now, let’s give a one clap welcome to your host and guest who doesn’t need an introduction because it’s the very, same person.”

You’ve now found a new, convenient outlet for all your tales of woe, only now presented in fancy, scientific language. I thought to myself after reading far too many of those books, ‘I belong to a dysfunctional family. That explains ‘who I am.’ I’m me because of my parents!’ I’m the winner of my very own living game show.

This reckless TV show of your young and adult life can, by the way, run for, in TV terms, many seasons. In real lifetime, all the seasons of your life.

I regret to this day some of the information I learned from those books about how my parent’s behavior formed me. I told my mother some of what I learned. I remember her only looking back at me with a forlorn, speechless look as though I hit her in the stomach. I was essentially telling her that she was not Jane Wyatt (although my mother’s name was, indeed, Jane) nor was she the pearl-wearing-while-vacuuming mom, Barbara Billingsley was on “Leave It To Beaver.”

Whewww. I’m done with the setup for this reflection. Time has proven that my family is profoundly and singularly “my family.” Take away the opening and closing credits but don’t ever reduce my family to those perfectionist confines of television in order to shame my family. Families influence, not form. The formation is up to the individual.

The family we call “holy” is riddled with what some may call “dysfunctional.” Sometimes personal, other times divinely planned. Find out for yourself. Cancel cable, dust off your Bible and read away.

On my parent’s trip from Manitowoc to Two Rivers, my mother never realized that she left me in the church for three days. About the Blessed Mother’s wine experience with Jesus at Cana, my mother often tested me when a friend I thought I had wasn’t a true friend. Or, that the thoughts I was thinking we’re not Christian ones. Our “pieta” between my mother and me was my last visit with her when she was in hospice care. I simply knelt down and touching her neck said, “Mother.” I never called her “mom.” She fidgeted slightly and the nurse said, “She knows it’s you. She hears you.”

There is no such thing as a dysfunctional family. There is only your beautifully own, one-of-a-kind assemblage of people sharing your DNA. Or, are you sharing their DNA?

It’s family. My actions. Their behavior. My behavior. Their actions. We witness and either embrace or modify. Ethically, it’s called right or wrong. We witness and either embrace or modify. Morally, it’s called good or bad.

We all know that Jesus had his. A mom with a mysterious birth. A dad who rarely spoke. Aunt and uncle who should have been in a nursing home years before but gave Jesus his best friend. There are more stories to share about Jesus’ family. There are more stories to share about my family and yours.

Embrace, honor, and celebrate your one family as your “holy” family, for they truly are, as best as any family can be. For they live either with … or within you for the rest of your life. Never, for television’s twenty-three black and white minutes.

(“Leave It To Beaver,” closing theme song, 12 seconds)

About Rev. Joe Jagodensky, SDS.

A Roman Catholic priest since 1980 and a member of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians). www.Salvatorians.com. Six books on the Catholic church and U.S. culture are available on Amazon.com.
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