Family gatherings can be full of joy, just “ok” or spectacularly awful.  Family events poke at my less than stellar adulting points….those areas of life where I just don’t feel like I’m living up to (someone else’s) expectations.

One such area that I am woefully deficient is cooking skills.  Due to being mentally ill for a great deal of my “formative years”, there are a lot of adult skills that I didn’t/haven’t really grasped.  And cooking most definitely falls in that category.

My mom says she tried to teach me and I don’t doubt that I was an uninterested pupil on the subject of cooking.   At the age, I was too busy having an existential crisis or wishing I had someone else’s brain.

As a result, I am the One-Trick Aunt that brings the same fruit salad to every family function.”I love this salad, Lauren…what are these, grapes?”  And I put on my Suzanne Sommers sunshiny smile and say, “Yup, washed them myself.” I can feel my adultness sliding away.

But I had a turning point a couple of years ago. I read Anthony Bourdain and, when I heard he had a show, I sought it out.  And so begins the story of a terrible cook being addicted to cooking shows.

Jacque Pepin, the French chef is my favorite.  (And I loved it when he was rockin’ it with Julia Child.)  I also have a real thing for The British Baking Show, David Chang and Ugly Delicious and *gasp* Gordon Ramsay.

Sorry, got distracted talking about cooking shows.

So I find myself at the aforementioned family function, fruit salad in tow, adultness tucked between my legs.  I greet my brother’s Mother-in-Law, my sweet Sister-in-Law, my Mom and so on.  Now I’ve gotta choose a spot to park it.  This is important, you don’t want to spend the evening sitting next to the wrong person.  It is especially important to me because if I get stuck by the wrong person I am going to want to leave.  And isn’t the whole point of these shindigs to spend time with the people you love?

I look left and see my Mom and my step-dad Ray.  Not a bad seating choice.  I can’t sit next to my Sister-in-Law because she’s working her ass off in the kitchen.  (She actually knows what she’s doing).  Well-meaning aforementioned Mother-in-Law to my brother is also in the kitchen.  She tries to send me on a guilt trip every time she gets me in her sights.  I just want to say, “Look, I know you probably don’t believe in mental illness and I probably just seem pathetic.”  And she would say, “I was just going to ask if you wanted sugar in your tea.”

I advance into the living room and hear funky husband, not in a good way, of another family member, bragging about his latest deeds or giving away the plot of a movie.  I don’t think so.

Then there is my awesome baby Brother who is Born Again.  He is a joyful soul.  I, unfortunately, don’t subscribe to any particular religion.  Everybody has to be able to worship, or not, as they see fit. My Brother has been proselytizing to me because that is part of his religion.  I try to be understanding about his need to quote Bible verses to me, but it’s one of those things I don’t have a lot of patience for.  (Yes, I know I’m going to hell).

I go back to my Mom and Ray who are sitting on the couch and sit next to my Mom.  My Mom and Ray are in the same vein of religion as my brother.  My mom, however, has given up on directly trying to change my mind about religion.  My step-dad, Ray, is a really cool guy who has PTSD from serving a year in Vietnam.  He’s a good man and takes good care of my Mom. We chit-chatted the usual subjects: kids, vacations, what we’re doing for the next Holiday.

Then I feel nicotine pulling me outside.  (Yes, I smoke. Smoking is stupid–you’re killing yourself.  But it’s like getting off crack, or what I imagine it would be like as I’ve never actually smoked crack.)

My Brother smokes too.  Kinda weird, we’re the only ones in the entire family.

I slip out into the garage and I’m happily greeted by my Brother.  He is such a loving man.  He got “touched” by the family mental illness genes as well.  It runs on both my father and Mom’s side of the family.  Mainly depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder and some delusions on my father’s side.  We’re like a grocery store of mental illness.  Curious about an illness?  One of us probably has it.

My Brother moves about with manic-like energy, doing five things at once. Every once in a while, my oldest niece or nephews come out in the garage and we send them right back in.  We try to have a serious conversation, but the interruptions never cease.

It’s time to eat.  We gather in a circle and hold hands…I breathe deeply, this part freaks me out just a little.  Someone says a blessing.  (“Doesn’t he say the most beautiful blessings?” my Mom asks me about my Brother.)  Then we stuff our faces.

What happens next depends on the reason for the gathering.  If it’s bigtime, like Christmas, the kids open a massive amount of presents.  Its a total free-for-all with wrapping paper, children shrieking, and bows flying.

The family function that flummoxes me the most is my nieces and nephew’s birthdays.  I have had a panic attack during my last two tries at attending their birthdays.  I walk in, start to hyperventilate.  The noise and amount of activity buzz around me.  I try going outside.  Not any better.  I try getting a drink.  Still not better, my body is tensed to the point of being rigid.

I say a quick, “Goodbye and I’m so sorry,” to my Mom and Sister-in-Law.  I rush out to my car, get in and let out a long exhalation.

So, no, my adulting skills are not at all what they should be.  I can barely keep it together through most family events.  As a matter of fact, I am 47 and I’ve held Christmas and/or Thanksgiving at my house precisely one time, many years ago.  I can barely manage to bring a side dish…much less host a get-together.

While family affairs can be fraught with anxiety-provoking questions, they are also full of love.  My family may be a little strange, but they’re mine.  And they accept me, adult-deficiency and all.

If you find yourself flailing about before a family function and your adulthood is nowhere to be seen, try the following tips to attend and have a good time.

*beforehand, run through some possible scenarios:  What if someone asks you what you do and, like me, you are disabled or you just don’t work for some reason.  You might have some answers handy for that.  I actually officiate weddings on a very quarter-time basis.  So I just talk about that.  You can also talk about volunteer work your doing.

*bring a food item or wine.  Its a nice gesture to the host and hostess.

*there will definitely be some or several people at this gathering that you like.   Spend time with them…hang out where they are.  Stay away from the people that bring you down.

*when its time to grab food, grab a chair by someone you like.

*Help clean up afterward.

*if this is a bigtime holiday, like Christmas, there will be a great deal of activity among the kids in the household.  Again, sit by someone you like.  The whole shooting match should only take 20 minutes or so.  Children will be at full tilt.  Prepare for screaming.  “Cool!”  “Awesome!”  “This is just what I wanted!”

*now everyone watches and helps the kids put their toys together and clean up after the unwrapping.

*then its time for dessert, which you will likely eat right where you are sitting.  And you are so close to being done.

*finish dessert and grab requisite “take home containers”, give out hugs and get in the car.

And you did it!  You made it through another family function!  And, hopefully, you got to spend some time with some people that you enjoy and eat some good food.  Even if you can’t adult properly.

Tell me what your family holidays are like.  Is it a pleasure to go home for the holidays and or is it mine-laden territory?  Tell me all about your adulting adventures in the comments.

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