Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Rethinking Family Traditions in the Name of Second Marriages

June 21st, 2023

On my first date with Stretch in Manhattan in the spring of 2015 he told me how much he loved his extended family’s annual vacation every summer in a place called Fox Island on the Puget Sound.

“Cool,” I said.

My kids had gone to camp nearby and I had always heard it was stunning. Stretch then described how his family loves to congregate, siblings, grandparents, kids, pets.

“If there isn’t enough room, we just bunk up, set up tents on the lawn or the kids sleep in my father’s boat. It’s crowded but fun,” he enthused.

The idea of going to a big family gathering was never my favorite idea. But maybe if I had my own shoreside bungalow and could pop in and out of family events at my discretion, that could be okay. But the idea of everyone living in one small space together? That was horrifying. I parked it in that it’s just a first date, you’re not marrying the guy corner of my brain.

Firm boundaries were all I knew. Until my father died, family holidays meant separate housing for each family subgroup. As a child I knew when my father came home from work, he was not to be disturbed. He needed time to relax, read the papers, have a drink alone with my mother, and until I was about 11, dinner alone with her too.  My family liked its privacy.

Fast forward 8 years and I married Stretch. I have now become a part of Stretch’s all-inclusive happy family who loves to hang out. In caveman days they’d all be sitting around the campfire laughing and maybe throwing a few rocks (they’re quite sporty), and I’d be the weirdo hiding in the cave, maybe drawing a few hieroglyphics on the wall.

My single friend understood my dilemma. She emailed me one day after I’d gone on a complain-rant, When I meet men, I almost panic thinking about their lives/ways/agendas and how my ‘somewhat strongly set’ ways would sync up with theirs. I imagine a second, new marriage has even more challenges than a first as you enter an already formed being and with separate families.

And to make matters even more complicated, Stretch’s family is really nice.

“Don’t you hate that?” my therapist asked me. “Nice people, the worst.”

“Exactly,” I nodded. “I can’t even hate them.” Then we both laughed.

The truth is I like them a lot. And I’m kind of social. But I’m also an introvert. I need my privacy to refuel. Oh, it’s confusing. In the interests of marital bliss, I want to rethink what I thought was a given, what I can accept and what I really can’t. The key to resolving differences of opinion, I’m told, is calmly talking through issues. Early and often, as Stretch says.

Thirteen assorted members of Stretch’s family recently gathered outside Boston for Stretch’s nephew’s high school graduation. It wasn’t like the nephew’s school was down the road. Planes, trains and automobiles plus rain boots/galoshes and several layers were required to attend the rainy outdoor ceremony.  I thought back to my graduation at the same school 43 years earlier. Only my mother came.

The majority of Stretch’s family, including yours truly, were staying in an Airbnb in Manchester by the Sea promisingly called Villa Fiori.  It sort of looked villa-like from the outside, but as soon as you entered, the house had a spooky feel. Maybe it was the angel with black eyes staring down at us from the living room wall or the human-size safe in the kitchen, or the multiple doors that said Do Not Enter or the dark creaky nineteenth century hallways.

There were rooms upon rooms, all a bit musty and old-fashioned, and an attic that I only got the courage to visit on our last day.

There were lights that flickered when they weren’t supposed to and the sound of a ghost dog yapping in the middle of the night. Our brother-in-law and his labrador Buckner were sleeping in the attic.  Both heard this dog that was not Buckner and commenced a midnight search of the house.  Nothing. Then I found the pair of fake eye lashes glued to our bathroom shelf.

Goodbye introvert. All of a sudden I was sitting around that proverbial campfire with zero need for alone time.

The manager of the house came by to introduce himself.

“Hi I’m Don,” he said bounding in the front door. “I always thought this house would be great for a murder mystery party,” he said jovially, gesturing with his arms at all the different rooms you could hide in.

I flashed a look at Stretch’s son Will and niece Kristin who were just as jittery about the house as I was.

“Hah hah,” said Will nervously, “we even thought there might be a ghost.

“Oh there is,’ Don said. “Her name is Winnifred.”

We all sat up to attention.

Winnifred?! Which room?!?

Don then pointed to the far corner upstairs, the exact room in which Buckner had uncharacteristically cowered the day before, causing Will to change bedrooms.

“Just read the guest book,” Don said.

“Guest book?!?” we said in unison.

Don pointed to a notebook on the hall table.

“Yeah, it’s all in there. Winnifred likes the right side of the bed. And she’s a friendly ghost so nothing to worry about.”

I wondered how you knew which was the right side. Didn’t it depend on your perspective? Facing the bed. Laying in the bed. Each had a different right. This was too big a decision to leave to an error of perspective. Then again, I was never going near that room so it didn’t matter.

I certainly saw the benefits of togetherness at Villa Fiori. And I’m coming round to the perks of convivial chaos (in my head that’s the world people with no boundaries live in).  Ghosts or no ghosts.

Writer Arthur Brooks’ refers to a 2008 study looking at happy versus unhappy people: “What Do Happy People Do?” To put it simply, they are social. The scholars found that, on average, “very happy” people socialize on 11 more occasions a year with relatives than unhappy people do. They also socialize more often with neighbors and friends.

No wonder Stretch’s family is so happy. I’m wondering if socialising with my pug Josephine counts. Baby steps. And I’ll always draw the line at sharing my office or bedroom.

Stretch’s rugged brother-in-law, and Buckner  stayed in Winnifred’s room for one night of the trip.

Talk about BRAVE.  I slept a little easier knowing they were protecting us from Winnifred. I just hoped he picked the correct “right” side of the bed.

June, 2023

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