You know true family when it hits you in the back of the head. Because it threw a water bottle at you.
This weekend marks the beginning of the Carpenter Family Vacation, an annual jaunt to Hilton Head Island that began long before I found employment at its local newspaper. It will be a happy week, but that wasn’t always the case.
You see, my siblings and I … well, you could call us a competitive bunch. And we would always find a game or two to obsess over on vacation, be it cards or a rowdy game of Pictionary. On the eve of the 2009 trip, a vacation-long, 10-event gauntlet of competitions was proposed. A Carpenter Decathlon: nothing at stake aside from pride and maybe getting Mom to make us the dessert we wanted one night. Four siblings and a plucky dad duking it out.
Which would be fun. Except for the timing.
My father was in the process of changing jobs. I was three months out of college, unemployed, living in a basement. My sister had just finished up a semester of community college before a tumultuous transfer to another institution. And my two youngest siblings were in the middle of the social catastrophe of moving across the country in the middle of high school. We’d all seen better days.
The decathlon began, and it quickly became evident that the cocktail of competition and months of pent-up frustration was a volatile one. The first few events — shuffleboard, hearts, a race on the beach — were fine. But, slowly, accusations started flying. “Stop looking at my cards.” “You were out of bounds.” “THAT WAS NOT A SIX.”
Annoyed, we kept up the games until there was one event left: basketball.
The day was hot, humid, ornery. By the first layup, we were going at it. A bump became an elbow, which grew to a charge, a shove, a curse, a stiff forearm. We were screaming, somewhat at one another, somewhat at life. My brother hurled the plastic bottle, filled with water; it struck its target, filled with venom. My violent retaliation was blocked by a fed-up mother.
There we were, all six of us, ranting, raving — a beautiful meltdown in the parking lot of a time share.
We stormed off and seethed. I checked the scores; I’d technically won the decathlon. But, really, we all lost.
Upon return to the island the following year, we had learned our lesson. One fewer decathlon, many fewer frowns.
Why did I tell this story? Partly because enough time has passed that feelings have mended to the point where I think it’s finally OK to gloat about my victory; also partly because watching the Olympics for the past week has me in a competitive spirit.
And because, as my siblings venture toward this little island by the sea, that disaster of a competition serves as contrast to appreciate that it’s not going to be like that when I see them this time. We’ve dug ourselves out of our respective ditches and in somewhat-adulthood found friendship devoid of throwing bottles at one another. Not that our friendship wouldn’t have arisen had we always gotten along, but I’m going to speak (however irreverently) for my siblings in saying that we’re closer because we didn’t.
Mostly, though, I tell the tale out of caution: If you want to get competitive with family members, perhaps a decathlon is taking it too far. Stick to Pictionary.
Andy did want to note that there was no conflict during the shuffleboard competition, which his sister Melissa won handily. He’ll be back in two weeks.