Dysfunctional? Family

Either Ozzie Nelson was left with a lot of money or he made an imaginary income, but we know that he never left the house. Harriet, wearing pearls around her neck and always wearing a bewildering look on her face 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, not including ads?

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, without ads, and living up to the program’s title that only and I’m mean only, “Father Knows Best.”

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

Today’s TV families seem to offer the opposite. They now show us children who advise and direct the parents, as though their parents don’t know anything. At a family’s Christmas gathering a few years ago, 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 then 70-year-old sister and said, “We would never have gotten away with this.” She nodded and smiled back at me.

The mid-’70s and 80’s roll around and suddenly psychology introduces us to a shockingly new revelation. A new word has been added to a centuries-year-old gathering of progenies. “Dysfunctional.” That temporary word gave my family’s circle 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.)

Now I need a drum roll…
“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 our star. 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!”

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. Your version of this reckless TV show of your young and adult life can run on your personal TV for many seasons. In real lifetime, regrettably even 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 my mother that she was not Jane Wyatt (although my mother’s name was Jane) nor was she the pearl-wearing-while-vacuuming mom, Barbara Billingsley on “Leave It To Beaver.”

Whewww. I’m done with the setup for this reflection. Time has proven that my family is profoundly, singularly, and lovingly “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. During my parent’s trip from Manitowoc to Sheboygan, about thirty miles, 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, I’d have Ivory soap in my mouth by talking back to my mother the way he talked back to his. My mother’s and mine “pieta” 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 because of their behavior? Wrong. My behavior because of their actions.? Wrong. We witness the behaviors and actions of others, especially parents, and either embrace or modify them. 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. What’s with that? A dad who never talks? An aunt and uncle who should be living in a nursing home give birth and raise a prophetic son to be Jesus’ cousin, his best friend? There are more stories to share about Jesus’ supposedly “normal” family. There are more stories to share about my family and someday I’d love to hear about 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, without ads.

(“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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