If you walk around New York today, you’ll see the streets are strung with little white lights, and Christmas trees are already appearing in building lobbies. Everyone is preparing for the holiday season, which also means that people are getting ready to spend time with their relatives. For some, the thought of being with immediate or extended family evokes feelings of delight and anticipation. For others, the feelings might be more negative: worry or even dread. Even those of us nostalgic for past gatherings may also feel a sense of caution about what might arise when the family gets together again.
No matter how old we get, there is nothing like family to remind us that we are still hosts to multiple versions of ourselves, some of which we’ve tried to overcome, others of which return to take over our adult selves, despite our best efforts. Most of us love our families, but that doesn’t mean we always love being around them. Yet we still idealise the notion of biological family, trying to recreate some greeting-card image of warm eggnog, delicious fruitcake, and playful and loving interactions, while ignoring issues or problems. I wonder if it would make a difference to our lives and relationships if we were more open about the complexity of our family set-ups.
John Singer Sargent’s ethereal 1899 painting “The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs Adeane, and Mrs Tennant” is a handsome example of the American painter’s work. It is a luminous and enchanting image, almost otherworldly. The three sisters it depicts were part of the top rank of British society and this painting shows them in their house in the heart of London’s Belgravia. They sit on a lush sofa and in their voluminous, delicate cream and white dresses, they look like figures on a heavenly cloud. Above them is a stately portrait of their mother, overlooking her virtuous, seemingly perfect progeny as they bathe in a flood of light.
The sisters are each staring in different directions and it is only the one in the middle who gazes directly at the viewer. She reclines effortlessly into the sofa, her open-armed posture sensually rebellious and slightly provocative. It is not surprising to learn that she is the youngest sister. The eldest sits dutiful and protective behind the other two. The painting is an image of a constructed reality of a family. And it reminds me that many of us have also experienced the dissonance between a somewhat fictionalised public representation of our families and the less-than-perfect realities we experience behind closed doors.
I can’t help but wonder what each of these women really felt about their lives, about each other and about having to sit for such an idealised portrayal. With siblings who grow up together, it is customary for each to be informally but fixedly assigned some role in the family system: the spoiled one, the difficult one, the reliable one, the peaceful one, the selfish one, the list is endless. And often the ways we are defined in our families become labels we spend a good portion of our adult lives wrestling with, trying to determine their validity or lack thereof. When we return to those same family systems for even a short length of time, those roles are easily resumed or triggered.
It could be wise before heading into family gatherings to remember that our families can have storylines for us that may not fit who we understand ourselves to be, or are trying to become. And to have some small strategy or plan for dealing with that, even if it’s just vowing to step away before anything escalates, repeating a mantra quietly to ourselves, or for the more dire situations, a friend or therapist on speed dial.
I am deeply moved by the 1888 painting “The First Mourning” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. It is an imaginative rendering of the first human experience of grieving the death of a family member. In an undeniable echo of the Pietà, Adam and Eve grieve over the death of their son Abel, murdered by his older brother Cain. Most artistic depictions of Cain and Abel focus on the fratricide. This image focuses on the aftermath of the loss, the grief of those mourning a family member. Abel is shown lain over Adam’s lap, while an inconsolable Eve buries her head in Adam’s chest. Adam’s left hand covers his heart as though to contain a breaking, while his other falls protectively but weakly across his wife’s back. It is a family worn out by grief but trying to muster some semblance of strength.
No matter how cheer-filled or robust our family gatherings might be, the holidays are some of the most painful times for families who have lost one or more of their own. Regardless of how much time may have passed, there can be a terrible sense of absence when everyone is gathered but the one. If this is not our own misfortune, these are the months in which we might reach out to those we know who will endure this sort of pain. Part of the grace and generosity of the holiday season comes from holding space for those families still in the midst of mourning.
There are two other elements of this difficult painting about family dysfunction not shown but inferred. The first is that there are members who are estranged from families for all sorts of reasons. We don’t see Cain, but we know the back story. Part of the fallout of his crime was that he was banished and left to wander the Earth for the rest of his life, without a true sense of home, deeply burdened. The second element is that this painting, with Abel’s death at its centre, illustrates the painful reality that families are not always safe places for their members. There should be room for this to be acknowledged without shame or fear in this season, and in all seasons. Sometimes it means we must foster communities beyond blood ties that become equally like family to us.
In 2018, the photographer and conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas reimagined the work of Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms”. Rockwell is perhaps the quintessential artist of a certain mid-20th-century American idealism, especially in his early work. In “For Freedoms”, Thomas, with the help of photographer Emily Shur, created a series of images offering a different perspective on American life.
One of the series of photographs in the reimagined works is “Freedom From Want”. In Rockwell’s original 1943 painting, an elderly white couple stand at the head of a dinner table. The grandmotherly figure sets down a large golden-brown turkey. Around the table are happy faces of people of all ages. It seems a family of generations has come together to celebrate. But none of them are looking at the food being served. They are all beaming enthusiastically at one another as though it is pure joy to be together.
In Thomas’s versions, the white couple at the head of Rockwell’s table is replaced with couples of other ethnic groups and sexualities. The people around the table are also of mixed racial and ethnic heritage. Thomas’s depiction suggests a more inclusive table, both a literal one and a figurative one: the works provoke a larger dialogue around issues of inclusivity and justice in the US, questioning who has access to certain freedoms, opportunities and lifestyles. Sometimes we have to make the decision to create healthier and safer chosen families than the ones we have been born into. Whether we focus on it or not, the holidays offer us a chance to consider who our family is, and with whom we really feel at home.
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