Immune systems are funny things. They can allow us to breeze through an entire flu season unscathed and work hour after hour in a hospital or school without so much as a sniffle. We tend to take them for granted. Until there’s a breach. There are times in life when our immune systems are depressed: after vaccinations, for instance, or while undergoing chemotherapy. Pregnancy is another condition that depresses the immune response. This is for practical purposes– so the mother’s body doesn’t reject the fetus. Practically, though, it’s very discouraging when I’ve been sick for two weeks with two different viruses, back-to-back. However, it has allowed me to think about this Friday Night Dinner in a different light.
There are many kinds of defenses. Our immune system is only one of them. In our day-to-day lives, we defend ourselves against attacks directed at our bodies, our emotions, our time, our friends and families. A “strong” person can have a weak day where it seems that nothing goes right. A “weak” person can display a surprisingly forceful response when something dear to them is threatened. Not one of us is immune to all things or always immune (although Donald Trump seems to think he’s an exception). And, there are some situations where it seems our defenses are always lowered.
Family, I think, is one of those instances. There is an innate vulnerability when it comes to dealing with our families, and they have the power to hurt us more than anyone else. I like this quote by Rick Riordan in The Sea of Monsters: “Families are messy. Immortal families are eternally messy. Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we’re related for better or for worse…and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum.” The defenses are really down at this time of year with the holidays approaching. No matter what kind of relationship each of us has with our families, something draws us together during the holidays and throws into sharp relief any cracks in the facade. Watch almost any Christmas movie (and they’re fresh in my mind because, of course, I’ve started watching them already) and you’ll see example after example of messed up family systems, stepped-on toes, and poor defenses. Four Christmases, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, Love Actually, Christmas with the Kranks… the overarching theme is not that family is who you make it to be, but that family is messy, it’s always there, and it’s important.
Throughout the series, Lorelai Gilmore embodies this theme. On the outside, a strong, confident woman who has taken life by the horns and been a successful single mom and businesswoman, needing no help from anyone. Her vulnerability lies with her parents. Although she renounced their lifestyle and their assistance at a young age, she is most easily wounded by them and struggles with the dichotomy of needing their approval while at the same time, denying that she needs it. Emily, in particular, realizes this and uses it to her advantage; although, of course, she struggles with the same dichotomy towards her daughter. In this episode (S1:E15), we see the family systems in overdrive. Not because of the holidays, but because three other people have entered: Christopher (Rory’s mostly absent father) and Christopher’s parents (who have not seen Rory since she was a baby). Emily displays an uncharacteristic naïveté here, expecting a “wonderful reunion– all of us together again.” Just wishful thinking, perhaps?
That wonderful reunion never happens. Straub is quick to bring up old grievances against Lorelai for “ruining” Christopher’s life and keeping him from Princeton. Stoic, proper Richard is even quicker at taking up the gauntlet and launches into a heated defense of his daughter, almost coming to blows with Straub. It’s poor Rory who is caught in the crosshairs, meeting a set of grandparents who are so blinded by hurt and hate that they can’t come close to desiring a relationship with her. We see the vulnerability that families bring when Lorelai states to Christopher, “I feel… 16.” It’s Emily who keeps her cool through the entire scene and brings some consolation to Rory: “Rory, I know you heard a lot of talk about various disappointments this evening and I know you’ve heard a lot of talk about it in the past. But I want to make this very clear – you, young lady, your person and your existence have never ever been – not even for a second – included in that list. Do you understand me?” This is very big of her, seeing as Lorelai kept them apart for many years, although granted, there’s much in that backstory that is never revealed.
The person who acted most strongly, Richard, tries to explain his reasoning to Lorelai, maybe for the first time ever. He makes himself very clear that the only reason he defended her was because the Gilmore name was being attacked (another example of our lowered defenses and heightened response when it is family involved). He outlines the hurt that Lorelai caused him and Emily when she left and shows how raw it still remains, 16 years later. In an interview for the book The Gilmore Girls Companion, Edward Herrmann talks about this scene: “It was the closest Richard ever came to actually explaining why he was so hurt and so angry. That kind of defined the direction of that intractable problem that was the engine for the rest of the series for me. How does he deal with his disappointment, his anger, his love, that Greek sort of tension? You can’t change what happened, but you somehow have to pray that it makes you wiser and not more bitter. I think Amy had her finger on that brilliantly. I thought the basic structure of the show Amy built was just wonderful. That scene defined his dilemma with Lorelai.” It’s too bad that Lorelai didn’t have that defining moment. Hers comes in bits and pieces throughout the series, as different events remind her how important her parents are to her.
With all of the family drama, dinner is never eaten. Emily fixes a plate of leftovers for Rory, but it appears as if no one else has an appetite. Sometime’s even Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be reorganized when the stress of the family system is involved. However, in my case, basic survival through sickness has meant that instead of a fancy Friday Night Dinner, we’ve been eating a lot of chicken noodle soup this week. BUT!– the holidays are coming with lots of opportunities for new recipes tried and fancy china used. So, spike the eggnog, laugh at a few Christmas movies, and don’t say I didn’t warn you…. your family’s coming to town!