Happy and Unhappy Families

By Vic Sizemore

When Tolstoy says that happy families are all alike, what he means is that they are all alike in this one thing: they are boring, not worth writing about.

Unhappy families. Now those are interesting.

Last night my wife and I—and our two teenage boys and pre-teen girl—celebrated our third wedding anniversary. In these three years it is becoming a tradition that we go out and eat backwards, dessert first, then the entre, and then an appetizer if anyone still wants one.

This night we choose Rivermont Pizza, a downstairs restaurant and bar, and are seated at a table beneath the largest of a series of windows that follow the downward slope of the outside sidewalk, starting small and growing larger like a bright, upside-down staircase. Through them we can see the legs and feet of the bar patrons who must now step outside to smoke.

Rivermont has a wood-fired kiln that gives the pizza crust a nice smoky flavor, and all kinds of interesting interpretations of pizza. My favorite is the Thai pizza with a peanut sauce, tofu, carrots, bean sprouts, jalapeno peppers, and fresh cilantro; as good as it tastes, this one tips very close to some food category other than pizza.

Our server is Marcelo, a good friend of mine, so it is immediately as comfortable as if we are just hanging at his house. I ask him what beers are on tap and eventually I settle on the Bourbon Barrel Stout. In the sweating glass it is as dark as Coca Cola, with a creamy caramel-colored head.

Our fifteen-year-old son asks if I will let him have a sip. I glance at my wife and she shrugs that it’s fine with her. He grimaces after barely touching the beer to his lips and says he thinks he will probably be more of a wine person. He is enamored of all things French these days, thanks to a French teacher at school who has captured his imagination, and apparently she has been clear about how important wine is to the French.

Rivermont has homemade desserts, which is rare for a pizza shop. My daughter orders the blackberry torte. The rest of us are hungry; we want real food. We get a couple appetizers to share: spicy Korean pork on a bed of mixed greens with kimchee—which is delicious; hot and fruity more than fishy—and a more typical appetizer of spinach artichoke dip with warm and heavily salted chips. We order two pizzas to share, one with meat, one without.

What strikes me about the whole scene, this family having pizza, is how unremarkable it is to anyone walking by to a table, normal. A boring happy family.

When the kids’ birth mother walked out a number of years ago, I held on, and held out hope for reconciliation, much longer than I should have—if I should have at all—even to the point of being thought pathetic by my friends. The reason was not because I loved her so much—the truth is I was as miserable as she was in the marriage. It was because of the kids, yes, but not primarily.

The main reason I held out was religious in a way: even though I had long since left the Fundamentalist Baptist fold in which I was raised, the teachings about what it means to be a man were deeply ingrained in my psyche.

To lose my wife was to become a failure as a man. The kids would be irreparably damaged, crippled adults who couldn’t have proper relationships with the opposite sex—from a broken home, so that consequences of my failure would be passed down to the second and third generations. It was a disaster in the making, and only reconciliation with the kids’ mother would avert it. Only that could maintain wholeness.

The fact was that my first wife and I made a bad match. We were unequally yoked in the most fundamental ways, and spent twelve years exhausting ourselves trying to pull the cart of our family in two different directions.

Having been raised the way I had, I was resigned to a lifetime of misery for the sake of doing the right thing, and for the sake of the kids. I dug in out of pride too. I was determined to someday look back and point out that I had held this difficult thing together, I had kept it whole.

Another belief that came from my upbringing was that once this initial family unit is broken up, whatever structures form from its pieces will always and ever be ersatz families—groupings fumbling to approximate what the original, painfully and artificially held together.

Sitting at Rivermont Pizza with this family of mine, celebrating our third anniversary—my wife has designed it this way; while we two do celebrate together just the two of us, she started from the beginning including the kids; we even went on a familymoon—I am struck by how comfortable it is, how natural and normal it feels. How good and how right.

After trying so hard to keep the outward structure of a fundamentally broken thing intact, I have discovered here, under the outward brokenness—can’t deny it when the kids pack up to go to their mother’s—this family is whole.

I have learned some humility at least. It’s not all up to me. In spite of my failings as a husband and father, this family is a success. These kids are healthy and well-adjusted (I reach out now and knock on a wood cabinet by my desk).

It is not without the conflicts typical of families with teens and pre-teens, but I really can honestly characterize it as not just a success, but a smashing one. A happy family.

If that’s boring, man I’ll take it.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.