Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The “Odd Duck” at Thanksgiving

The South is a great place to spend Thanksgiving. There’s pecan pie and fried ocra, green-bean casserole, and ham AND a turkey, and lots and lots of gracious hospitality.

Except for my parents, my entire extended family lives in the epicenter of small-town Florida, surrounded by the orange groves they depended on for their livlihood. This isn’t the flashy beachfront Florida glorified in “CSI” or the plastic touristy Florida disdained by everyone who’s been to Orlando and thinks they “know” Florida. My parents were highschool sweethearts in that same small town, and when they go back, they run into their high school friends while attending the same church they were married in….that they were all married in. Its the kind of place you don’t think exists anymore; a modern-day Mayberry with a paucity of wireless networks and a dying downtown. The same cop who pulled me over for speeding, and let me off with a warning, waved at me at “the resturant” in town later that day. The same yearly fireworks display over the mid-town lake on the 4th of July, everyone pulling their lawnchairs into the driveways to take in the sights. I go back there usually either Thanksgiving or Christmas, this year it is Thanksgiving.

I read this op-ed piece on which really resonanted with me, about being the “odd duck” at her family’s Thanksgiving gathering. But instead of being “odd duck” for not having any kids—which by the way many of my cousins, most of them younger than I, already have kids—I’m odd in about every concieveable way. I’m the only person in the family to ever pursue a PhD and the only person in the family to ever study science at all. I’m the only “Yankee.” I’m single. I blog and am reliant on new media– a foreign concept to grandparents who’ve never even sent an email. And, I’m a closeted atheist in a fiercely evangelical Southern Baptist family. Several of my family members are ministers, deacons, Sunday school teachers. So, pretty much any interests I have is not only not shared by my family, but some of it is openly disapproved of. Which always leaves me in a quandry. I love these people, but, I can never be myself without causing sadness, despair, and disappointment.

I’m sure this is a common complaint—a lot of people feel that they could never live up to their family’s expectations while simultaneously being true to themselves. But, its only a few days out of the year and my family doesn’t pick fights with me over evolution or religion so I’m happy to let things be. In the end, Thanksgiving is about being with your family with all their warts and flaws (mine too). But I wonder if anyone else out there has had a similar experience of being the odd one out at holiday gatherings?


  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    November 22, 2007

    Even if you do not always show yourself
    The good thing is, you know yourself.

    Some other, not so fortunate people
    Don’t quite understand why they feel so uncomfortable in a building with a steeple.

    Or they wonder why they feel such dread
    At the prospect of gathering with their extended family to break bread.

    At least you know, surrounded by devout folk, and grandparents who have never seen an email,
    That you are one lucky female.

    Because even though you privately disagree with your family about a few things, like whether there is in fact a God above them,
    You know you love them.

    So when they tease you about being a Damn Yankee
    Just give thankee.


    (A Thanksgiving poem: )

  2. #2 Jennifer Ouellette
    November 22, 2007

    Wow, your family sounds just like mine. I’d like to say the odd duck element gets better over the years, but that wouldn’t really be true — I rarely spend more than 3 days at a time in my family’s collective company because it gets too tense and uncomfortable having to let them rant while I remain silent for the sake of keeping the peace, etc. I haven’t spent a major holiday with them since I left my home state at 22. Perhaps that sounds awful, but we’re all happier for it. 🙂 It doesn’t mean I don’t love and appreciate them, I just prefer to avoid them in the holiday season.

    What does get better is the mutual tolerance at non-holiday gatherings; over time, the tension and rants have become few and far between. I think (a) my folks have mellowed a bit, and (b) we’ve all gotten better at finding that all-important common ground. We’re all subject to the human condition, after all, whatever our superficial differences might be.

  3. #3 John C. Welch
    November 22, 2007

    Yes, for a few reasons. My dad was the only one out of 8 kids to have less than 4 kids, (and only one sister had THAT few), and in a VERY Roman Catholic family, there was always this weird tension between my folks and them. Found out later why, when, after my mom died, and I was going through her papers, I realized “Hm…they were married in Nov. ’66, I was born in March ’67…1..2…3…4 months….OHHHHHHh….So THAT’s why”

    I didn’t grow up near any of them, I’m an only kid, so it’s like i’m part of the family in name only.

  4. #4 Keith
    November 22, 2007

    Yeah, I can relate. My parents were brought over to this country by missionaries who later adopted them into their family, they’re all Southern Baptists, and a few years ago the only cousins of mine who were as questioning about religion as I was settled on the side of faith. Even as I type this there is contemporary Christian music playing in the background (my parents are both Sunday school teachers and deacons) and weekly I participate in worship services as a leader (or perhaps entertainer would be the better word) while keeping my opinions on religion to myself.

    Though my situation isn’t as extreme as your’s (not only religious differences but educational ones as well) I think I can relate.

  5. #5 Karen
    November 22, 2007

    every family NEEDS at least one odd duck, be it a happy artistic eccentric single uncle or a happy academic focussed auntie – these people are important role models to the youngsters of the families, as important as the traditional-role family members. my favourite mentors and teachers were these people. i’m kind of on the verge of turning into them, possibly, but that’s beside the point; the society and families and young people need to have odd ducks around!

  6. #6 Wendy
    November 22, 2007

    From one odd duck to another(albeit for different reasons), I understand! I hope my children grow up with your focus, determination and quest for new experiences.

  7. #7 Brandon
    November 23, 2007

    Hey, I’m an odd duck, too. I’m the first to pursue a PhD, first to be in science, first to be into computers, first to leave IL for college, first to attend a first tier university, etc. Most of my family is in business (previous generation was hard working middle class urban/suburban-ites), my mom married at 18 (had me @ 23), and none can understand why I went from a six figure job back to a $25k stipend (it literally blows their minds). My sister and I get along because she’s the other outcast (similar situation, but her thing was law – she just become an attorney a couple months ago.)

  8. #8 Kevin
    November 23, 2007

    I think most extended families are going to have the one or two odd ducks whose lives and ideas are outside the family norm. Don’t ask or expect them to fully embrace or even understand your life. The boundaries of your world extend far beyond the boundaries of their worlds. You have chosen to move beyond Mayberry and that isn’t a bad thing.

    “I love these people, but, I can never be myself without causing sadness, despair, and disappointment.”

    You don’t have pursue a PhD to disappoint your family. I am living proof of that!! It may be all that you have as common ground is kinship itself. That is often more than enough.

  9. #9 Nathaniel
    November 24, 2007

    Sounds a lot like my family too. Small town Texas can be just like that. Good food, great people… as long as you’re just like them.

    It’s tough having different spiritual beliefs from the rest of one’s family. I know exactly what that’s like. At least my brother and I share that one quality in common. He’s an atheist who prefers to follow the teachings of Buddha and I’m eclectically spiritual but certainly not religious. Fun stuff when most of the family is die hard Church of Christ (the guys who believe that the bible is the literal word of God, women should serve their men as men serve God, instrumental music is evil, dancing is evil, fun is evil, etc…). Yeah, really fun.

    Heh, all I really have to do to disappoint the older members of my family would be to actually wear any of the t-shirts I sell… the younger groups tend to think they’re pretty funny. I’ve at least got good heart-felt stories to back up most of them… BS or no.

    There’s nothing wrong with being the odd one. I would think it better to be unique. There’s no reason to be just like everyone else. Don’t feel bad because you can see past the small town city limits.

  10. #10 George
    November 24, 2007

    Switch continents and these things still happen. But if it’s the exception over there, it might be the rule over here [that is, Eastern Europe]. You reminded me that I should start my preparations for a Christmas experience that won’t be very different from what you described.

  11. #11 Travis
    November 24, 2007

    I’m half an odd duck, I guess. I am the sole atheist in a sea of Mormons- I come from and LDS family, but left the church as a teenager. I am also pursuing a science career. Then again, my uncle is the local bishop, and he is high school biology teacher. He has no problem teaching evolution as fact, so I guess it is all good.

  12. #12 Interrobang
    November 24, 2007

    Yep, I’m definitely the odd duck in my family. I had been using the term “dotty relative,” but “odd duck” will do just as well.

    I’m still single at thirty-mumble. I’m the only political liberal in the whole family. I’m the only one in the family who’ll actually take offense and not nod sagely when someone comes out with some sort of transmitted-to-the-mainstream white-supremacist talking points (Actual quotes from family members: “I don’t hate other people, I just think white people are better than everyone else.” “Only black people are racist anymore.”). I’m openly atheist, which gets me accused of having “weird ideas,” despite the fact that nobody in the family goes to church more than once a year (on Christmas, if that). I’m interested in languages (Mom: “What do you want to learn [langugage] for? Anywhere you go, you can find someone who speaks English.”) and travelling (“…and what do you want to go there for?”). I was also the first person in the family to get a postgraduate degree, although my cousin now has an MA in history. They also know I don’t want — or even like — kids, which makes me extra super special weird.

    Since I’m Canadian, we already had our Thanksgiving back in October. I went out to dinner with three of my good friends at the best Chinese buffet in the area. I’m planning on cooking my own turkey dinner tomorrow, since this will be the first weekend I’ve felt like going to the trouble. Christmas promises to be a(nother) nightmare, though…

  13. #13 Abstruse
    November 26, 2007

    I was going to tell my story but I believe you all know the variations.

    I decided that the cognitive disonance I fell can only be resolved by avoiding my family. I spend the holiday breaks from School reading and volunteering in the local homeless shelter.

  14. #14 CJ
    November 29, 2007

    The oddest thing about getting a Ph.D. and coming from a non-science family is the fact that they never will understand and probably never appreciate what you know or do with your life They might be proud or pleased that you have a degree but your family can’t relate or really digest what you will have spent most of your life doing… if your kid becomes a carpenter or police officer or dentist then you can imgaine what they do during a days work. Become a neuroscientist or nanotechnologist and you will have to accept that your loved ones will never really get it. Never really get you… yeah it is kind of sad.

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