On Sunday, Catholics celebrated the “Feast of the Holy Family,” appropriately positioned in the liturgical calendar on the Sunday following Christmas. Along with the many opportunities to share time with my family over the holidays, the feast day awakened special memories of growing up in my family of 10 children, 6 girls and 4 boys. In the Guste household, Monday evenings were scripted in a three-step ritual that included the praying of 5 decades of the Rosary, a family meal followed by a family meeting.
The Rosary was a time for our family to pray together, but it was also a vehicle for my Dad to conduct Catholic formation. Instead of allowing us to fall into passive repetition, our Dad would routinely ask one of us to share our understanding of one of the mysteries of the Rosary. You might imagine the reactions of squirming youngsters trying to avoid being selected for sharing, especially when the mystery was the “circumcision” the “Ascension” or one of the other more dense impenetrables of the Christian story. The meal was a Monday night favorite–red beans and rice with sausage or something similar. Like most New Orleaneans, this meal was always a crowd-pleaser and, besides, it was an economical solution for a family meal that always included friends.
After a quick cleanup, the weekly family meeting started. The meeting began with, of course, a prayer, and followed by this agenda: Mother’s Report, Complaints, and reports of various Committees such as the “Good of the Family” Committee, the “Good of the Church” Committee and the “Good of the Community” Committee. The Committee reports were followed by the report of the Treasure of the Christmas Club. In our large family, the meeting was my parents’ way of communication and coordination, some avoidance of conflict and effective mediation. I never fail to smile remembering how my Mom would begin her routinely very brief report with the words, ” Billy (my Dad), the children have been so wonderful!” Now, you must realize that we were far from wonderful all the time, but this is what she shared. That choice on her part has always stayed with me in my later years in giving feedback; that is the indispensable value of constructive and positive messaging. Of course, who wouldn’t try to live up to this indefatigable view of the whole that my Mom so repeatedly held out to us as hers?
The Complaint part of the meeting gave us each a formal time to log on with everything that can bug and bother children growing up in a large family. The reader can imagine that the complaints ranged from “so-in-so took my socks” to “so-in-so is hogging something or another…” Believe it not, I think that this time really worked to promote civility, even though it didn’t always seem that way.
Three committees were set up with some end purposes around the values of family, church and citizenship. By design, all the children were to cycle in and out of the different committees to learn about those values at some point in our growing up. All three committees had the same charge: we were to come up with something each week that we could do to grow stronger as a family…church members, and citizens. Usually, the Chair of the Committee would make something up right before meeting, but this was not the design, of course. The Committees were charged to meet during the week to come up with an actionable idea to share for that week. A noble ideal, but more times than not, there was a lot repetition in ideas week after week. In fact, this time in the agenda seemed more an exercise of the imagination and creative intelligence of the Chair than an exercise in engaged participation. One thing was most consistent: the laughter than ensued as a result of the idea.
My Dad gave us each a weekly allowance that included a small part for a weekly contribution to the Christmas Club. Growing up, I actually thought that this money was banked—that we had a legitimate savings account called the “Guste Christmas Club.” Many years later, it finally dawned on me that my Dad was actually simply shelling it out of his pocket at Christmas. The idea of this Club was that we could all learn about money management, accounting and the value of savings. Again, the Treasurer would rotate so that we could all learn about the mechanics of financing, albeit elemental! Of course, the report did not end without some requests for increases in allowances. The Treasurers report ended each meeting until the next Monday when the meeting would run in the same way.
These precious memories never cease to invoke a “laugh out loud” in me, even to this day. After all, who on earth could conceive of such things, much less enact them in a family? Perhaps it was the time in history that this “Leave it to Beaver” approach worked, or something far more amazing: the corny simplicity, genuine humor, light-touch sincerity, and sacramental affection of two parents for their children.
Reflecting on the Feast of the Holy Family, I see these routine practices in my family life formed in me a deep sense of a loving community joined together in faith. Our Monday night ritual planted in me a deep respect for dialogue, civility and process. It gave me confidence in the wisdom of the group, especially through effective mediation and facilitation. It bonded me with my siblings and my parents, making me confident in representing my thoughts to others, even when those thoughts were not in agreement with those of others. In short, the regularity of these family times together built in me a deep sense of “grounded-ness” as a person, a sense of being part of a whole and a true sense of being valued. My memories of Monday nights as a child speak to me of a Holy Family, and, again today, of the continuous Christmas blessing of family.
Note: The old photo’s do not include my youngest brother, John, who was not born when these were taken.