What is a family?

Missing my ex-husband’s family today, as I often do… I wrote the following piece about six years ago. Who knew that I’d be re-reading my own words so many years later, finding peace and wisdom in an excerpt that–at the time–had such different meaning to me? Back then I was on the other side. The inside.

“… I’ve found the family to be a living, breathing, organic entity. It is ever changing, and rarely stagnant. The family breathes in new life as we celebrate birthdays, adoptions and weddings, and sighs as we lose members to calamities like death or divorce. And then the cycle continues. In and out. Introductions and good-byes. Happiness and sorrow. Life and death. And all the while, we are still a family….”

A chill wind whipped across our cheeks as my little son and I climbed the familiar steps of his great-grandma’s front porch. I leaned over and tenderly gripped his tiny shoulders, holding him at arm’s length and trying, one last time, to communicate what had happened that morning. Not surprisingly, my somberness was met by a rosy-cheeked grin. I straightened again and rang the doorbell, shaking my head and smiling a little in spite of myself.

After a moment, I heard some shuffling inside and my husband’s aunt came to the door, puffy-eyed and tissue in hand. Although it was gloomy and damp outside, I still had to blink in the dimness as we entered the family room. The small house was thronged with loved ones, but rather than the raucous laughter that generally attends our family gatherings, now the only sound was the flutter of an occasional whisper or sniffle. Ignoring the mood, my two-year-old bolted across the room and into his grandma’s arms, giggling wildly. I watched them from a distance and noticed she held him a little tighter than usual.

I scanned the room, trying to catch someone’s eye, but my shy smile fell on blank, faraway expressions. And suddenly, through no fault of anyone else’s, I felt very uncomfortable, like I had walked in on an intimate moment of which I had no part. Mostly, I felt helpless and useless. Slowly, I wandered through the crowd looking for my husband, watching my small son out of the corner of my eye, making sure that he didn’t go bouncing into the back of the house, where the body of his great-grandmother still rested. Finally finding my spouse, I gave him a quick peck on the cheek, slipped the candy bar I had brought him into his pocket, and retraced my steps toward the door mumbling something about the baby’s nap time. Later, as I watched my little angel drift off to sleep, I though about the irony that he–not I–was a direct descendent of this amazing woman, and I envied that connection.

Hours passed, and finally a call came from my sweet husband, who was helping sort out the estate. I agreed with him to offer our home as a gathering place for the next few days, mostly for selfish reasons as I was floundering to find my place in all this. At least it was a tangible way to reach out to the family.

In subsequent days, relatives came and went, but I was still unable to shake the feeling, however unwarranted, that I was somehow out of place. After all, this was not really my family, it was my husband’s, whispered the little devil on my shoulder. Nonetheless, I continued to go through the motions, trying my best to show love and playing hostess to those around me, all the while feeling awkward and detached.

When the request came that I sing at the funeral, I didn’t hesitate, thinking that my emotional wall would make me an ideal candidate for the performance. No chance of breaking down in tears at least, I thought.

As the days passed, the mood began to lift a little. Happy memories were shared and retro pictures were rediscovered in an old dresser drawer. People began to tease and joke with each other again. And we found any excuse just to be together. It was good to hear laughter again. Through it all, I was still bitterly jealous of everyone else’s ability to mourn and their seemingly perfect understanding of their connections with the family. But still, I felt the bond between us starting to grow.

The morning of the funeral mass was sunny but bitter cold, and the family huddled in their elegant black dresses and suits, waiting to enter the sanctuary. I looked into each of their faces and wondered what was in their hearts and if anyone could relate to me, the outsider. It was a beautiful service. When my turn came, I rose and sang “Ave Maria,” relishing the delicious acoustics of the cathedral ceilings. But when I took my seat, something unexpected happened. I shattered like a stained-glass window in a storm, no longer able to hold my composure.

My husband reached over and took my hand, and my brother-in-law put his arm around me. I saw my little boy look up from his book and peer quizzically at me over his grandfather’s shoulder, furrowing his brow for a moment before going back to his “reading.” For the remainder of the service I sat gazing at the coffin, unable to sort through what I was feeling, only knowing that I loved grandma and that I was going to miss her.

Later that evening, we gathered at a pizza parlor for one last bash before everyone went their separate ways. Our party filled the entire banquet room with bodies, noise, and especially laughter. The adults sat at several different tables, some rising occasionally to talk to others on the opposite side of the room. And all the while, the little cousins dashed back and forth and crawled around the floor, squealing with delight.

I stood silently in the doorway, watching. It was such a beautiful sight, ringing with joy and togetherness. So many different faces. So many voices. So many varied hair colors, complexions, sizes, ages, and styles of clothing. I guess in nearly seven years of being married into this family, I had never really taken notice of the variety among us. And suddenly it hit me. I was not the outsider. We were all pieces of the same puzzle–different, but part of the same big picture. And as we had faced this tragedy together, something magical had happened. We had pulled closer together. For all these years, I had known with my mind that they were my family, but it took this mutual loss to teach that simple truth to my heart.

When I was a little girl, I had a family of dolls: a mother, a father, a baby boy and a baby girl. Their matching hair complemented perfectly coordinated outfits of baby blue for the boys and pink for the girls. I admit that for most of my life, when I heard the word “family,” an image like this came to mind. I always thought a person had to be born into a family and that they all had to match, to look like they belong together. But since then I’ve learned that’s not always the case.

Of course, it’s true that we are born into families. And the idyllic ‘family of four’ is one type of family. But luckily for the rest of us, that’s not all there is. In reality, I’ve found the family to be a living, breathing, organic entity. It is ever changing, and rarely stagnant. The family breathes in new life as we celebrate birthdays, adoptions and weddings, and sighs as we lose members to calamities like death or divorce. And then the cycle continues. In and out. Introductions and good-byes. Happiness and sorrow. Life and death. And all the while, we are still a family.

Great-grandma left us many things, but among my most favorite are her afghans. She told me once that she crocheted to keep her mind sharp and her fingers nimble. And as a result of her countless hours of work, nearly every family member owns a beautiful hand-made blanket. Shortly before she passed away, she gave one to my son. Its delightfully bright colors and beautiful pattern mesmerized him from the first moment he saw it. I told her once how much he adored it, but she promptly dismissed my praise. “Oh, that one? I just put it together with leftover yarn from the others.” It seems interesting to me that when she let him choose, that is the one he loved best. The one made from scraps of everyone else’s.

Every once in a while, I see my son snuggling with the beautiful blanket, and I have to smile. For me, that cozy afghan has become a poignant symbol of love passed through the generations of our family. When I see his little body wrapped in it, I see great-grandma’s arms wrapped around him. In it, I see her slender, matriarchal hands working swiftly as she sat in her easy chair, chatting with us in her living room. In it, I see no longer single strands of surplus yarn or individual colors, but a beautiful, cohesive unit–a unique creation bound together and stronger than any one strand could ever hope to be apart from the others.

 

Photo: FreeDigitalPhotos.net/arztsamui
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2 thoughts on “What is a family?

  1. “It seems interesting to me that when she let him choose, that is the one he loved best. The one made from scraps of everyone else’s.”

    That blanket is indeed emblematic of family. We’re all scraps needing to be knit into a place in the world. I hope you are able to find/keep connections to these people you’ve learned to love.

    Ruth

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