Putting the fun in family dysfunction

Got a crazy family but love them anyhow? Join the club.

alcohol, drink, martini, booze


Wade Rouse, American memoirist and author of It’s All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays and 50 Boxes of Wine, explains what it’s like to be raised in a clan of eccentrics, and the magic that a box of wine can bring to any family gathering.

Q: Do you think of your family as uniquely peculiar? Why?

A: I think of the Rouse House as beautifully dysfunctional, as is nearly every family in the world. Truly, every family is uniquely peculiar, in that each has its quirks, its fights, its way of communicating, of loving, and, especially, the unique ways of celebrating every holiday. Of course, my family is a bit odder than most, a sort of David Lynch version of family rather than a Normal Rockwell version of family.

Q: Can you give me an example of something profoundly weird?

A: How much time do you have? The Rouse House certainly had our peculiar ways of celebrating: For instance, my father, the logical, left-brained, Depression-era engineer, believed it was too easy for my brother and me to wake up on Easter and find a basket on the end of our beds. So, he buried our eggs (yes, you heard me) in our backyard and woods, and gave us a crudely drawn map on a napkin to locate our booty. My mother protested – “Ted! We’re not a family of moles!” – but it didn’t do any good. My dad thought it was a blast, so my brother and I got our Easter suits filthy digging up eggs that were filled with those nasty orange slices and nickels. And, my mother, a nurse and early National Geographic aficionado, dressed me as a Ubangi tribesman in rural America in order to shock our little town and teach them about the world. Dogs ate the biscuits – that were supposed to resemble bones – off my shoes.

Q: How do you deal with the hassles that occasionally come with an entertaining but dysfunctional family?

A: Two words: “Boxed wine.” And lots of it. Honestly, I simply remember that while I may be deeply scarred, I am also deeply loved. I’ve also learned to embrace, love and appreciate that dysfunction rather than fight and curse it. You can’t change the ones you love, and you shouldn’t try to do that. What you can do is sit back, smile and laugh, and just squeeze that bladder of Franzia a little more tightly whenever you’re about to lose your mind over some indignity. I always just shove those cardboard rabbit teeth from grade school into my mouth at my in-law’s urging and hop around the table like the Easter Bunny. I believe we all must be a bit like the boxer Rocky at the holidays: You have to be able to withstand the punches, keep standing and coming back strong.

Q: What is the upside to being raised in a family of eccentrics?

A: Nothing shocks me any more. I’ve learned to have a great sense of humor. One of the things I learned from my mother, and from Erma Bombeck (an American humorist who is my writing idol) is that the only way to keep from crying through life is to be able to laugh at life and yourself. I’ve also learned to be myself, to be the unique person I am, that it’s actually better to march to the beat of my own drummer than follow in step with the band. We all strive too hard to fit in with what we consider “normal,” which really sucks away all our individuality. But it’s those people who are a bit off-center, independent and eccentric that are the ones we love and remember most, those who become the leaders and artists, the ones who pursue their passion and makes their dreams come true, largely because they’ve learned it’s perfectly OK to be themselves.

Q: What did you get from your family that you can really appreciate as an adult?

A: The best meds. And therapists. Seriously, a sense of humor, a way to cope with the world, a realization that life – and, especially the holidays – don’t have to be perfect to be fabulous and beautiful. One of the greatest things I learned from my parents and grandparents, who never had a lot of money, and often made my family gifts by hand (quilts, leather belts) was that the best gifts aren’t necessarily the material ones, they are the time you spend with those you love, the stories, the laughter, the hugs, and even the dysfunction, because those are the things you’ll remember and cherish forever. And you know what? They were right.