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Davis, California

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Column: Family ties

When’s the last time you called your parents?

Last week? Last month? Never, because they’re not even in your contact list? Tsk tsk.

Like many college students, I often get wrapped up in my day-to-day life. Freshman year, I was especially prone to parental neglect.

But recently I’ve been very nostalgic for the days of my infancy, when both my family and my external environment largely shaped my development. I’m taking a class right now that examines how one’s parents affect one’s social and personality development. Its summoned many fond memories of my family that prompt me to call them more frequently, less out of obligation and more out of desire for re-connection.

In a more general sense, how does the milieu we grow up in – both external environmental factors and familial influence – affect our values, thinking and temperament?

How does the family unit shape us, either stifling or cultivating certain passions and aspects of personality? In attempting to answer this question, I look to my own family: the Stephanides clan.

When my older sister Julia and I were children, Ted Stephanides was the man who sliced bedtime fruit for us, lulling us to sleep with tales of The Berenstein Bears. In the morning we’d be greeted with plates of peanut butter toast for breakfast, carved into the shapes of houses.

My parents encouraged me to explore my passions, buying me make-your-own-book kits for Christmas to explore my love for writing, and paying keen attention anytime I expressed interest in a particular activity.

A study in New Scientist suggests that sense of humor – rather than being determined by genes – is a learned trait cultivated by family and cultural environment.

This certainly holds true for me. I have my family to thank for its healthy appreciation of life’s absurdity and humorous situations.

One example of my family’s appreciation of humorous situations involves poking fun at faux pas committed by my visually impaired mom. Although a cause of great distress and frustration for her at times (and undoubtedly a challenge we have had to work through as a family), my mom’s visual impairment makes for many situations that could easily belong on SNL.

Shopping with my dad at Macy’s one day, my mom once stroked an elderly man’s sweater, mistaking his frail old body for that of a mannequin’s. My dad could only chuckle awkwardly in response, apologizing to the befuddled old man while swiftly escorting her away.

“That was a person, Kathy,” he scolded once the man was out of earshot.

We continue to re-tell the incident at family dinners, and both my parents never cease to laugh about my mom’s very hands-on, intimate interaction with a complete stranger.

My sense of humor is kept alive even today just by watching the interactions between some of my family members.

For instance, my sister and my dad often argue over our cat Waldo. Waldo is an 18-pound lug resembling a cartoon character, what with his rotund body supporting a tiny baseball-sized head. In short, my dad is ready to get rid of him. He’s had it with Waldo’s incessant door-scratching, slovenly litter box and shameless begging for more cat food.

Every time he jokes about getting rid of Waldo, however, my sister vehemently protests. She grows especially infuriated with his oftentimes ungentle manner of treating Waldo. (In response to her accusation that he had kicked our cat, my dad offered, “I only politely escorted him out the door with my foot”.)

Squabbles like these are playful without being detrimental to the father-daughter relationship. In fact, according to Janine Culotta, graduate of Towson University in Maryland, “when families disagree, debate or even argue, this can be an opportunity for growth and learning.” I imagine that my sister’s occasional rifts with my dad only strengthen their connection. Likewise, my sister and I argue, most of the time over my lack of organizational skills.

“The way you keep your belongings parallels your mental clutter,” she’ll sometimes say sarcastically.

Still, for every argument we have comes a heart-to-heart in which her empathy, understanding of me and general good-heartedness become clear.

The point of this column – if there even is one – might be simple. Enjoy your family, and take note of how your present self extracts from both your early experiences with them and the environment that surrounded you. Someday we’ll all start our own families, and what better way to look for guidance than to look at what our own parents did?

ELENI STEPHANIDES loves hearing about quirky families, so if you have any memorable family stories or endearing foibles, feel free to send them to her at estephanides@ucdavis.edu (It’s likely that you’ll make her day).

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