Folks are coming: don’t panic

Vern and Katherine Mark still look tense as they pace up and down the arrivals area of Terminal 3 at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.

“We are talking to each other again now,” says Vern cautiously. “That’s something.”

Katherine and Vern, CARP members who live in Welland, Ont., survived (barely) an ordeal most of us face at one time or another. Call it “The Folks Are Coming Panic Syndrome.”

You probably know the feeling. Friends or relations have decided this is The Year for a visit. Suddenly you notice the wallpaper in the hall is shabby, the yard’s a mess, and the couch in the living room looks a fright. And what will they eat! Didn’t you hear your niece is vegetarian now, and your brother in law is a meat ‘n potatoes guy who won’t touch anything even vaguely “foreign?”

And with all the pressure, couples who’ve been sweet as pie towards each other for the longest time are soon having bitter arguments about the dreaded visit.

Worry can be hazardous to your health
And all that tension can be downright dangerous. A few years ago, meeting folk myself at the airport, I was chatting to a man also meeting family coming off the same flht.

“They’ll be miffed my wife isn’t here to meet them,” he said. “But she was working so hard getting ready she collapsed. I’m taking them straight to the hospital to see her.”

Elizabeth Thorsen, who teaches a Body Shocks and Coping course at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, says for women especially, Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year. Not far behind on the stress scale come visits from friends and relations. Combine the two – folks coming to stay at Christmas – and you have a perilous situation indeed. So why do we put ourselves through these ordeals? “It’s because we’re unwilling to be seen as we really are,” explains Thorsen, “There’s that expectation, that pressure.”

The pressure on Vern and Katherine was clear to see as they waited for a couple from Northampton, in England, with whom they had stayed for three weeks a few years ago.

“They treated us royally,” says Katherine.”They took us everywhere.”

“We feel we just have to reciprocate,” adds Vern.

“Our biggest argument,” says Katherine, 58, “was over meals.”

Vern, she says, figured she could make a lot of the meals ahead of time and freeze them so she’d be free to go on outings.

“I don’t like preparing ahead,” she says. “Who wants turkey that was cooked five days ago!”

A renovation nightmare
Then there’s the house facelift: They had the kitchen ceiling painted, the floor repaired, and Vern, 66, was on at her to get as much of the housework as possible done ahead of time. “But you can’t clean the bathroom a week ahead when you have a husband who scatters water all over the place,” she says smiling, but with an edge to her voice.

She hadn’t slept well for a week. “I was up at 6.30 this morning,” she says, “but that was the second time.” She’d been working so hard the day before, cleaning and baking butter tarts among other things, that she’d forgotten to eat. “I was so hungry I had to get up at one this morning and make myself a roast beef sandwich.”

I know the feeling only too well. Last summer, when I should have been taking it easy, I was knocking myself out painting the house.

Only because in late August we were expecting no fewer than 11 relatives from England and Switzerland who’d decided Canada was the spot for a family reunion this year.

Next page: Is the only solution to say no?

Don’t get me wrong — I love them all. But not all at once. I fretted that the grass was dismal brown from lack of rain, made practice runs to the airport preparing route maps so they wouldn’t get lost if they became separated from us in their rental cars.

We anguished over finding a cottage big enough (we found a great one in the end), and argued over sleeping arrangements the first night when they’d all be staying in our house (my wife and I slept in the living room).

Never, ever, ever again
“We’ll never do this again!” we told ourselves as, with our kids and grandchildren expected for a welcoming barbecue that first night, black clouds filled the sky. Thank goodness, the rain held off.

The truth is, of course, we try to do too much. Janet Williamson, waiting at the airport to meet her father in law, says, “We have the whole menu planned for the three weeks he’s here. It will make it easier shopping.”

“We painted the bedroom over the weekend,” says her husband, George, 52. Flowers decorated the room where his father, Wladek, 75, would be sleeping, his mineral water stood ready, and they’d put in a nightlight so he could find his way to the bathroom.

As well, family visits often carry their own emotional baggage. George had not seen his father for two years. “We get quite stressed every time he comes,” he admits. “No matter your age, you are always the son or daughter, wanting to live up to your parents’ expectations. no matter how old you are. Truth is, my sons have the same feeling about me.”

Throw away the brochures
Family tensions are hard to banish, but what can we do to avoid getting palpitations every time friend and family descend? Thorsen suggests we just quit planning too much.

She’s made the mistake herself. When Danish friends came to stay last year, she had all sorts of unusual, off-beat trips planned. The one thing she hadn’t allowed for was that they would want to see the obvious things, like Niagara Falls and the CN Tower.

“Take every day as it comes,” she suggests. `What shall we do today?’ And what does it really matter if the wallpaper is faded and magazines are strewn around. They came to see you, not an impeccable living room where they’re afraid they might break something.”

“Think to yourself,” says Thorsen, “two weeks from now when they have gone home, do the little things really matter?”

Easy to say, but… The folks are coming!