Family is a complicated thing. I love my parents and brothers and sisters and I think we're much closer than a lot of families. (When you grow up sharing one bathroom between eleven people, a bedroom with anywhere from one to eight siblings and occasionally a bed with one or more siblings, that tends to happen.) Sometimes there's drama or hurt feelings, but for the most part we enjoy spending time together and get along when we do. There are definitely issues that have carried over from childhood and plenty of personality conflicts but (from my perspective at least) they don't generally stand in the way of us feeling like a family. In fact, for many of us, our family members are our best friends and the only people we truly feel free to be ourselves with.
Extended family is a little different. Maybe it's because we have such a large family that we didn't feel the need for exceptionally close relationships with extended family growing up, maybe because we lived farther away from the rest of our extended family than they did from each other, maybe because many of us are introverted and/or shy and don't find it easy to talk to people we don't know well or maybe it involves interpersonal dynamics between my parents and their parents and siblings that I never understood as a child and still don't really grasp today...Whatever the reason, I don't feel particularly close to or comfortable with most of my extended family. This makes family reunions awkward, to say the least.
Don't get me wrong, I love my grandma, aunts and uncles and assorted first, second and third cousins (or is it second cousins once removed? Still a little confused on that one...), I just don't know what to say to some of them. When we were kids it was a little easier. We'd start off in our separate immediate family huddles but then the grown-up talk would get boring or we'd need to sneak away from our parents to drink a soda (or three) in peace or there would be outbuildings to explore, animals to check out, music to dance to or games to play. We would eventually start discussing our families, school, music, sports, whatever. It helped that between weddings, graduations, confirmations, family reunions and occasional holiday get togethers we saw each other several times a year.
Now that we're all adults, some of us with families of our own, we see our extended family quite a bit less. Whether it's because of college classes, work schedules, kids' extra-curricular activities schedules or other family obligations, I think most of my siblings and I see our extended family less than once a year, on either my mom or dad's side. In fact, the only time I think I've seen my any of my dad's side of the family in the last 7 to 10 years is at funerals . We see my mom's side of the family a bit more (and always have for some reason) since my mom plans family reunions around the bi-annual visits of one of her brothers who lives out of state, and occasionally someone else on her side still plans a large graduation, retirement or anniversary party.
Here's how these events tend to go for me:
Step 1: Arrive. Immediately look around for my parents, brothers, sisters, nieces or nephews.
Step 2: Say hello to all immediate family members and my grandma, grab some food and find somewhere to sit that's both on the periphery of the room and close to immediate family.
Step 3: Eat and talk to family members sitting close by (usually a few of my sisters). Stay huddled in our comfortable corner together as long as possible.
Step 4: Realize that the longer I sit in the corner not talking to people the more awkward it will get to finally make the first move (and the more likely people are to think I'm an uppity b**** who thinks she's too good for everyone else, which could not be farther from the truth) and force myself to get up. Feel jealous of any siblings who have close relationships with some extended family members and are happily talking to them. Envy my mom who works incredibly hard to maintain her relationships with family and who, in any case, never has any problem talking to anyone who is willing to talk to her.
Step 5: Go sit by my grandma and talk to her until someone else comes along who wants to talk to her. Although I don't see her nearly as often as I would like, I'm never intimidated by my grandma and I know she's always happy to see me too.
Step 6: Approach the family members who I only feel mildly awkward attempting to talk to (meaning I used to spend more time talking to them when I was younger, they generally seem happy to see me and they're much better at carrying on a conversation than I am). Give them hugs, ask how they're doing, talk a bit and let them speak with other people when they're ready (I've realized that I have an unfortunate tendency to try to monopolize someone's time, if they're one of the few people in a room that I'm comfortable talking to and we're carrying on a conversation - not cool).
Step 7: Approach the family members that I have a harder time talking to (maybe they have a hard time making small talk like I do, maybe we don't have much in common, maybe they just don't really have any interest in talking to me - who knows) but I would feel guilty about not saying hello to, at least. Say hello, ask how they're doing, attempt to think of things to talk about that aren't the weather (thank God we live in Wisconsin and the weather is always doing something annoying, unbelievable or worthy of appreciation), stand there awkwardly until someone else comes up to talk to them, they walk away to do something else or I come up with something I need to do (check on the kids, get another drink, whatever).
Step 8: Eye all the family members I've probably never spoken to in my life, for whatever reason (they were born after I moved out of my parents house and I've only seen them a handful of times, they're a generation older than me and never spoke to me when I was a kid so I've never spoken to them as an adult, I don't know who they are, etc.). Decide they probably won't/shouldn't be insulted if I don't talk to them since they've never bothered to talk to me.
Step 9: Find somewhere to sit near a group of people and attempt to relax and possibly participate in the conversation. Bonus points if the group contains both members of my immediate family and members of my extended family.
Step 10. Round up the kids and say our good-byes. Day dream on the way home about making plans to connect with my extended family more often so we can really get to know one another. Hope I will actually follow through with this someday. Go home, put on yoga pants and take a nap. You would not believe how exhausting socializing can be sometimes.