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Family dynamics keep things fun, with a little tension now and then: Susannah Gal

Posted 3/27/19

Families … you’ve got to love them, right? Well, maybe ...

I grew up in a large (by today’s standards) family with five kids. In birth order, there was my older sister, then my …

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Family dynamics keep things fun, with a little tension now and then: Susannah Gal

Susannah Gal and family enjoy the sights at  the Arena in Verona, Italy in July 2010.
Susannah Gal and family enjoy the sights at the Arena in Verona, Italy in July 2010.
photo courtesy of susannah gal
Posted

Families … you’ve got to love them, right? Well, maybe ...

I grew up in a large (by today’s standards) family with five kids. In birth order, there was my older sister, then my older brother, me, then my younger brother and finally my younger sister. Yup, I was the middle child, often the peacemaker of the family. There was only about 8 years between the oldest and youngest child. So my parents were pretty busy.

It was a vocal family, lots of fighting and loud discussions (some might call them arguments). We had the classic fights around who would do the dishes, or set the table, or clean the bathroom. I don’t remember us being very physically violent, just rough and tumble the way big families are. Especially with my brothers.

Both brothers played football in high school. Football is really big in Michigan where we grew up. While they were very successful in high school, neither brother was big enough to play in college. That’s probably a good thing given what we now know about head injuries for football players. Both of my brothers attended the University of Michigan and met their wives there.

We girls did dancing. I believe I’ve mentioned in the past columns that my mother was a dancer on Broadway when she was only 16. When we were growing up, she taught modern dance to all of us girls. I remember taking classes with my mother as well as ballet with other teachers.

My older sister got a degree in dance and worked at it in New York for a number of years before getting into computer programming and making some real money. I don’t remember major competition with my sisters in the dance realm. I guess we were all so different in ages that it wasn’t easy for us to try to do the same things.

What I do remember competing on were puzzles. When we would drive to my grandmother’s about two hours away, we would do Word Power from the Reader’s Digest magazine in the car. That’s a puzzle where a slightly esoteric word would be given and you had to determine which word of a provided list had a similar meaning. For instance, the word “abrogate” might have four definitions or synonyms and you had to guess which one was the right answer. The options for this word might be A) to decorate an entrance; B) to interrogate someone; C) to overturn or abolish; or D) to break apart.

We would try to guess the answer and see how well each person did. I was always the first to try; my father and younger sister were always last to contribute as they knew the answers and didn’t want to influence my decision. That sister read a lot so I’m sure that’s why she did so well on this and would have known that C was the right answer. I probably would have guessed B when I was younger. It was a bit disheartening to be in that lowest spot, although I’m sure that’s something that contributed to my sister doing so well in college and going on to law school.

Blending my family with my husband’s was not easy. In contrast to how I grew up, Hilton comes from a fairly quiet family. His father was a minister and his mother a music teacher. He has two sisters and is also the middle child. I think it may have been quite a shock for them to meet my raucous family with lots of children at our wedding.

Those different family dynamics have continued. When we get together as a group, my brothers and sisters are quite vocal and like to strongly express their positions. I listen and try to be the peacemaker, to allow all the points to be heard without upsetting people. At some family gatherings, Hilton has to go off into another room for some quiet time as my family is so loud with their discussions and opinions.

Within our immediate family, my husband and two daughters, we have some really good discussions without major arguments. We share lots of similar interests, so it’s fun to get together for short visits. We are planning a two-week trip in July to Alaska as a celebration of our younger daughter’s graduation from college. We’ll see how well we get along during that concentrated time. I’m trying to plan some days for shopping and museums, interspersed with days for hiking and maybe a dog sled tour. That way each person will have something for them (ever the peacemaker). This is all part of family dynamics.

Related to this theme, during Lent, the adult group at the Presbyterian Congregation of Middletown is reading a play called “Family Portrait” by Lenore Coffee and William Joyce Cowen. This 1939 play tries to imagine what Jesus’ family might have been experiencing during his three-year ministry. It tries to depict the challenges of living in a family where one of the important members is a famous figure (i.e. Jesus), traveling a lot, not around to help out with the family business. Plus the family has to bear the brunt of the good or bad publicity around their famous member; remember that passage: “Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor” (Mark 6:1-6).

The play is a simple, eloquent and reverent picture of the family of Jesus. If this would be interesting to you, come join us as we read together sections of the play, look at the biblical passages represented by the scenes, and discuss how this story enriches our understanding of Jesus as a member of the human family. We meet at 9:15 a.m. Sundays in the fellowship hall of the church at the corner of Union and Water streets.

And if you have recommendations for what we should plan to do in Alaska in July, let me know!

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.