Of our three children right now, Gracie is the least serious-minded. But she always demands to say the prayer at dinner each night.
At first, it was the prayer she learned in her Christian preschool: “God is great, God is good…” Every night, she’d clasp her little hands together and say the entire prayer, while grinning through her squinted eyes. Now, she’s starting to branch out into more free-form prayers:
“Dear God, thank you for mommy and for daddy and for the food…and to the Republic for which it stands…Amen.”
I snorted about an ounce of sweet tea out of my nose with that one!
We just finished an eight hour car trip to my in-laws for Thanksgiving. If Gracie wasn’t asleep, she was talking. And if there’s nothing interesting to talk about, she’ll make something up. Suddenly, a bear is chasing our car, or a unicorn is singing to her, or…take your pick.
Sure, it’s adorable. But by the end of the trip my wife was coming unglued. Between fixing all the girls’ iPads and refilling their drinks, she knocked over an entire large cup of ice into her lap.
“What can I do for you, honey?”
“Just get me home. Please.”
Home is actually her parent’s house in Knoxville, TN. And things are going to be very different this year. My wife’s dad passed away just two months ago. We’re all just beginning to deal with it, and now we’ll feel his absence even more keenly with the first holiday after his passing.
Honestly, it’s also going to be tough because of everyone else there. All the family is coming together and staying under one roof—my wife’s brother and sister, their spouses, all of our kids, and even a few animals. It’s a big house, but no house is that big.
Okay, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Face it—family is tough sometimes. And the holidays can make it even tougher.
You’ve got multiple households who do things multiples ways who are all crowded way too closely together under one roof. And now add the loss of a family patriarch and it’s bound to get awkward, to say the least.
Truthfully, most of us approach family reunions looking forward to them and dreading them at the same time. That’s because we can all remember times when we didn’t get along. There were trips when some of us ended up not speaking for a while. Differing styles of parenting and ways of thinking all colliding in a small space where it’s tough to avoid each other.
When there’s so much chaos amidst Norman Rockwellian expectations, I’m tempted to retreat and search for solitude. In fact, I just ditched a trip to the mall, which is why I’m able to sit here and write now. But I don’t think that’s a good long term strategy.
Why? Because even the disappointing, imperfect experiences with family are better than no experiences at all.
Case in point: There were times I didn’t see eye-to-eye with my father-in-law. But right now, I’d give anything for even a disagreement with him. He’s gone, and there are a hundred conversations I wish I could still have with him. Now I never will, this side of heaven. He was a pastor, so every time something good or bad happens at my church, he’s the one I want to tell. I want to see his reaction, especially since he’s heard it all before. He would help me not overreact to the bad and not to trust too much of the good.
But now, I’ve got no one to tell those things who would see it from his perspective.
And I wish he could see how my little Gracie, at three years old, is profoundly affected by his passing. I wish he knew how many questions she keeps asking about Papa, and how he went to heaven. It’s been two months now, but she still has not stopped talking about Papa in heaven, and how she wants to go see him in heaven, and wondering if he will come back and see us soon.
I wish he could have seen her at the end of his funeral. My four-year-old Ellie ran to tattle on Gracie to me. Seems she had ventured up to the church’s balcony. In the midst of well-wishers and old friends, I hurried up the steps to try and find her so we could head to the graveside service.
When I got up to the balcony, there she was running up and down aisle after aisle of pews. Finally, I cut off her escape route and grabbed her, but she insisted on continuing. I asked her what she was doing way up in the balcony.
“I came up here where it’s higher, so I could get to heaven and see Papa. Where’s Papa, Daddy?”
She was sure that balcony would get her to heaven and back with Papa. If I wasn’t already crying, that did it.
So this Thanksgiving, I’d be happy to have a few bad moments back. It would be worth the drama just to be with him again. Papa was quite opinionated—not always correct, but never in doubt. But he was a truly great man and changed the lives of thousands of people. And I’d happily take a bad day with him again.
Gracie had gotten in trouble a couple of nights ago. My wife told her to get out of our bed and go downstairs to hers, but Gracie cried and pitched a fit. That earned her a pretty hard scolding, and she finally went down to bed angry at us.
Then about 10 minutes later, we heard a little voice on the staircase singing…
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray…”
This is what she always sings with my wife, sitting on her lap and looking into each other’s eyes. It’s their little love song together, and one of the most tender moments you’ll ever witness. And Gracie knew that if she wanted to get back into my wife’s heart…and crawl back into our bed…that was the ideal tactical maneuver.
And, of course, it worked perfectly. We were both shaking with laughter when we should have been scolding her for disobeying. Gracie was cuddled up back in our bed again until she eventually fell asleep.
What had started with chaos finally ended in sweetness.
So don’t take the chaos this holiday too seriously. People are going to get on your nerves, and you’ll probably get a little sick of your family.
But at least you’re together. And no matter the conflict, something like Gracie’s song will eventually break the ice of any argument and feelings will finally be mended.
So…step out of your bedroom, or bathroom, or whatever quiet corner you’ve found to hide in. Go out into that beautiful chaos we call family. And remember, everything’s better after a slice of pecan pie.
Have another piece of pie, and live in this moment you have.
Dave Gipson is a husband, father of 4 adopted children and one biological child, former foster parent, and pastor at Naples Family Church of Naples, FL. An author, Dave's new highly acclaimed book, "The Seven Surprises: Everyday Epiphanies on Being a Better Human Being," is now available. He also contributes regular commentaries to the Naples Daily News as well as other international publications. He has served churches for the last 25+ years, from Florida to the inner-city of Chicago. Rev. Gipson holds his ordination in the Southern Baptist denomination, and has two earned Masters degrees in Religion and Divinity. Read more at http://davegipson.net.Follow him on Twitter at @realdavegipson.