Lorraine V. Murray
The screen door flew open and in they stampeded: my sister, my brother-in-law, my grown niece and her husband, and their three boysone only six months old. And don’t forget the dog. Suddenly our house had shrunk in size. There were bags everywhere, plus cameras, baby equipment, toys and diapers. The couch bent precipitously under the weight of three super-sized adults, while the dog busied himself by growling at our cat as she tried to defend her chair. Someone was thirsty, someone was crying, someone needed a diaper change. And as chaos was unleashed, I am ashamed to admit, I started looking forward to the visit being over. I was also reminded of my old diary from childhood.

If you were to read the daily excerpts spanning two months during my eighth summer, you would discover how keenly I was counting the hours until the arrival of my aunt and two cousins from New York.

How eagerly I envisioned showing my cousins how to crack open coconuts that grew in our front yard, inviting them to swim in the neighborhood pool and teaching them how to jump over waves at the beach.

Only a week later, you’d see the stark words scrawled in my childish hand, I can’t wait for them to leave.

What a letdown. The long-anticipated cousins whined and carried on when they didn’t get their way; they ate more than their share at supper; and they demolished my toys. And now here I am, many years hence, still anticipating the future with intense enthusiasm and then, when it walks through the door, yearning for it to leave.

As I fall into bed exhausted on the first night of the family visit, I remember the story about two sisters who received Jesus into their home long ago. Martha was like me, running around in a frenzy trying to get everything perfect, while the other sister, Mary, quietly sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he had to say. Before long, Martha got so fed up she went to Jesus and implored him to tell Mary to get off her hindquarters (I am paraphrasing here) and help in the kitchen. Then Jesus turned the tables on Martha. Instead of ordering Mary into the kitchen, he chided Martha by describing her as anxious and troubled about many things. That could be my T-shirt slogan!

When it is just my husband and myself at home, I am a definite Mary type. Mornings I like to sit in the cozy chair with Tinker Bell, our cat, and pray while the bird choir tunes up outside. But during the family visit, I went into full Martha mode, rushing hither and yon, making sure beds were made and the fridge was crammed with goodies.

My guests tried their best to be helpful, but when there are children around, as any parent can attest, chairs have a way of falling over, juice glasses hit the floor with a resounding crash, and chocolate fingerprints mysteriously appear on walls.

How I yearned to be the carefree hostess who would trill: Oh, don’t worry about the spilled coffee grounds and the upended bowl of cat’s water. We can clean that up later. Instead, I scurried around with mop and towels trying to keep chaos at bay.

During the entire visit, I was pulling food out of the regrigerator, displaying it picturesquely on the dining room table and then watching it vanish. Somehow, the hands of the clock sped forward and everyong looked ready for lunch only moments after I had washed the last juice glass from breakfast.

Loving folks who live out of town is easy. Sending letters and making phone calls doesn’t tax you at all. But when relatives are sitting smack dab in your living room, wreaking serious havoc on your newly upholstered couch, that’s when love is put to the test. The Benedictine monks have an exquisite attitude toward their guests, based on the rule for living that St. Benedict wrote. They welcome every guest to the monastery as if he were Christ. Which means guests are cherished, no matter how clumsy, annoying or messy they may be. This mystical approach to hospitality reminds me of St. Paul’s words, It is not I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.

Somewhere along the line, true Christians take on a new identity. We are supposed to empty out all the garbage in our hearts, all the hurts, doubts, anxieties, worries, resentments and other junkand make room for Christ. Well, this Christian is trying, but I confess I have a long way to go. Truth to tell, I yearn to be like the Benedictines, treasuring every person who walks through my front door. But whenever I envision next summer’s family visit, I have this really evil thought: I imagine myself called mysteriously out of town that weekend.

I know prayer can help, so I am asking God to sweep the debris from my heart. Maybe if I empty out some worries and cares, then the next time the family descends, I won’t be all tied up in knots like Martha. My prayer is that I will be like Mary, sitting with my guests and listening to their stories, being gentle about the inevitable spills and the whining and barking.

Most important of all, maybe I will learn to cherish the real guest who is hiding in their hearts. For as the Benedictines say: A guest comes, Christ comes.

Lorraine V. Murray is the author of Why Me? Why Now? Finding Hope When You Have Breast Cancer (Ave Maria Press) and Grace Notes (Resurrection Press). She works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta.

Comments

Anna | 2/1/2005 - 2:11pm
Thanks for the delightful essay on when relatives visit. The anticipation of the visit seems always to be more enjoyable than the actual visit. An all too-human experience, I suspect.
Allison Shaskan | 2/8/2005 - 2:09pm
My dear Lorraine, as the proud mother of 5 (including 4 very boisterous boys), I will gladly stay out of your pristine home; my relatives react much as do you when my children come to visit. We've learned our lesson and we stay far away. Thus, my sister-in-law's showroom house is always clean, my mother-in-law's pantry well stocked, and their beloved quiet is never disturbed. Their loss; my gain. I don't "test" anyone's love---and I take messages clearly. When my boys are followed with a mop and towels, when hostesses notice fingerprints on their walls, and when anxiety is clearly displayed on the faces of these sorts of "hostesses", my husband and I make a mental note to never return. As La-Leche-League preaches, "people before things" but I'm afraid I've learned that if one must tell themself this, they really don't believe it. You will never learn to cherish that gifts which God has sent your way; hopefully your bothersome sister and her husband will react as I do to your rudeness.
Anna | 2/1/2005 - 2:11pm
Thanks for the delightful essay on when relatives visit. The anticipation of the visit seems always to be more enjoyable than the actual visit. An all too-human experience, I suspect.
Allison Shaskan | 2/8/2005 - 2:09pm
My dear Lorraine, as the proud mother of 5 (including 4 very boisterous boys), I will gladly stay out of your pristine home; my relatives react much as do you when my children come to visit. We've learned our lesson and we stay far away. Thus, my sister-in-law's showroom house is always clean, my mother-in-law's pantry well stocked, and their beloved quiet is never disturbed. Their loss; my gain. I don't "test" anyone's love---and I take messages clearly. When my boys are followed with a mop and towels, when hostesses notice fingerprints on their walls, and when anxiety is clearly displayed on the faces of these sorts of "hostesses", my husband and I make a mental note to never return. As La-Leche-League preaches, "people before things" but I'm afraid I've learned that if one must tell themself this, they really don't believe it. You will never learn to cherish that gifts which God has sent your way; hopefully your bothersome sister and her husband will react as I do to your rudeness.