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The Ties That Bind

WebMD Feature

I'm heading home for the holidays. As I get off the phone with my travel agent, I feel nothing but joy and goodwill toward my family. But the closer the departure date looms, the greater my worries grow.

My anxieties start with what to wear. I look through my closet and imagine my mother narrowing her eyes and frowning. Do I own anything she'd approve of? "That's a nice dress," I hear her say. "Why don't you wear that one?" I'm just going for the weekend, yet my bag might as well contain a 50-pound turkey. My clothing needs are few, but I'm packing a lifetime of resentments. Lingering grudges, stale spites, and smoldering indignities jostle for space among the toiletries and socks.

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Why travel light when I can burden myself with memories and fears? I seethe over the injustices and slights I remember -- or imagine -- as I dread the inevitable irritations to come. Will my father ask me -- as always -- if I have health insurance yet, though I've been paying my premiums for 15 years? Will my mother hitch her glasses up, zoom in, and comment on the state of my complexion, even though my acne faded alongside disco and polyester?

Families. What big opinions they have, the better to judge you by. I spend the eight-hour flight from San Francisco to New Jersey perfecting my responses to every conceivable attack on the imperfections of my life. By the time I arrive, I'm ready to defend myself on all fronts. Woe to the careless relative who questions my job, appearance, home, or life! All guns are loaded, and all safeties are off.

The Visit

My parents are at the airport, emanating love and warmth, welcoming their eldest daughter home, home, home. We hug and we kiss. My mother hovers close, peers in, and says my skin looks good. I sigh. The ride home is a time warp. I sit in back just as I did as a child, while my parents, up front in the adult seats, squabble on cue. "Right lane, there's the exit," yells my mother. I silently recite her next line with her. "If you're going to drive, then drive." My father swerves toward the exit and says as always, "Stop controlling me. I know where I'm going." I sigh again.

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