Reflections on the family ties that bind

IN THE DARK and sunlit recesses of our memory, there are constant recollections of family: gestures, phrases, expressions, spoken and unspoken thoughts. We call from those memories what we want to remember or can’t forget.

Some of us acquire early in our lives the ability to excise memories contrary to the images of our families that we choose to create. Winston Churchill’s American mother refused his request to come home for Christmas because all the rooms in their house would be filled with guests-not exactly a message of Christmas cheer for the psyche of a 14-year-old. But the incident never deterred him from idolizing her. We remember what we want to remember.

Raising our children well, trying to do what Ozzie and Harriet would have done, becomes the all-encompassing pursuit of a good family. We sense that there are few higher compliments than describing a person as being from a good family, but the definition of a “good family” is elusive. And raising children well seems to be almost as lucky as it is worthwhile. One thing is for certain: The formula is still out there waiting to be discovered. Here are a few views to be considered, if not endorsed.

Good families are resolutely flexible. There’s a difference between wanting a child to solve algebraic equations as gracefully as he can write a sentence and demanding it. When Ira Gershwin recently departed for the longest-running show of all, I read that the prospect of taking calculus had made him quit City College in his second year. I like to think that his family was able to cope. Maybe they knew that if he forced himself to learn calculus, he’d never write:

You ’ve made my life so glamorous

You can’t blame me for being amorous

Oh, ’s wonderful! ’S marvelous

That you should care for me.

By the way, while Ira was growing up, his father was not addicted to any one job and, as The New York Times reported, liked to live where he worked. He lived in 28 different homes-25 in Manhattan and three in Brooklyn. I like that fact because, for me, it lays to rest the myth that all good families live on the same elm-covered streets forever.

Good families understand anger, righteous or otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing quite so unsettling as being around a family-some of whose members are clearly stepping beyond the bounds-and seeing the resultant anger hidden or disguised with a perverse gentleness that does no one any good. I’ll take an unequivocal show of anger anytime.

But good families don’t necessarily have anything to do with children. Think of those childless couples who display an almost effortless grace in forming and maintaining friendships. They succeed in making us feel a part of them; they succeed in making friends their family-a family as strong as any created by blood relationships.

Eudora Welty wrote, “.. .my continuing passion would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, the invisible shadow that fells between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence.” Within that thought we can learn the most about a good family. Good families Tight off (as much as their strength allows) the urge to be overly judgmental. There are few things that are tougher. That’s not to say that we as parents don’t try to instill a code. But being too judgmental encourages a passivity that discourages what we seek: children who will grow to have good judgment.

Good families are never indifferent to each other. There is friction and fighting, yes, but never indifference. In a good family, someone always knows how the most troubled member feels. In a good family, people do things on their own, but they’re not alone. They feel supported in spite of disagreement.

Good families are sworn enemies of pretensions, especially their own. They have the ability to make room for anyone, but they will refuse to legitimize the phony. Good families, as a rule, understand each other’s idiosyncrasies and vanities (do they ever!). These provide an inexhaustible, lifetime supply of means to deflate family members who try to avoid remembering when.

Good families give their members the chance to escape. Despite the love and affection within a family, children obviously have to find themselves beyond its confines. They need to escape parents, their rules and reactions-even some of their values, however humane they may be. Those who study the heavens talk about escape velocity-the speed required to break away from a planet or other celestial body and never come back. But we’re not talking about final escapes; we’re talking about only enough escape velocity to grow on our own.

Someone once described New York as a citywhere everyone mutinies, but no one deserts.A good family has the same characteristic. Inthe tough times, the strength is always found towithstand the mutinies.