My husband and I were recently at a reunion for my mother’s family. Politically and culturally, I think you’d call us outliers on the edges of this large, mostly Midwestern, politically conservative and highly religious family. They’re almost all good people, but we don’t always agree. Still, they’re my family.
I behaved myself for the most part, except for my innocent inquiry about, exactly, how much Obama carried Oklahoma by in the 2008 election. I watched my second cousin’s husband’s eyes bulge out in horror, before he told me not one county in Oklahoma had voted for Obama. “Oklahomans are too smart for that,” he said.
Aside from the squirming discomfort of getting cornered by another cousin-in-law about the moral depravity (his words) of the modern world, I sailed through it all pretty smoothly. Women are, after all, the supreme smoothers-over in any gathering, especially when it includes blood relations.
Not so my husband. He started to complain to me, first a little, then a lot, about the continuing barrage of prayers and repeated mention of Jesus’ name before meals. “Not everybody here is religious,” he grumbled. “You should see what happens during all those prayers. Half the people don’t even close their eyes.”
Oh, God. Or do I mean, oh, god?
“It’s a family tradition,” I said weakly.
“Yeah, big deal,” he said. “I think we need to take a stand.”
Another one of those big-deal first-person plural events. We weren’t going to do anything, I knew. No way was I going to take this religious issue on in a family setting; politics was as far as I’d go. It wouldn’t be us; it would be him or no one. I should have known no one wasn’t an option.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something,” I heard my husband say to my uncle at breakfast the second day. I stayed perfectly still, listening, the same way I’m mesmerized and immobilized by train wrecks. (On the whole, I’m a low-profile non-believer. My husband, on the other hand, has announced he’s tired of being unduly polite about other people’s beliefs when they aren’t respectful of his.)
So, I listened, in some amazement, to the ensuing conversation. I wouldn’t call it a train wreck. I’d call it an uneasy meeting of two different worlds between two people who like each other — but fundamentally disagree on something pretty damned fundamental.
“You’d better hope you’re right about this,” I heard my uncle say. That thought — the implied threat of eternal damnation — made me realize how long and far I’d drifted from the religious world of my childhood.
Still, the talk was respectful and cordial. My husband went on to say that, beyond the obvious, the religious and non-religious share a number of the same beliefs about love and the importance of family.
He was right to bring it up, I finally concluded. This family, once straitlaced and narrow, had expanded to include cousins who had divorced, who had converted to other religions, who had gone different ways, had even moved to California, had proudly voted for Obama against the forces of ignorance.
So we aren’t religious? My husband was right. We believe in a lot of good things — including family.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)