Many of us have images, memories, recipes, instances of interaction with all the colorful characters in our families. I think a lot about those who have woven close, lifelong bonds with grandparents, parents, siblings, and other extended family. I remember those woven threads growing up with both sets of grandparents within earshot (or at least a short driving distance away). I remember the regular gathering of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Not just in special occasion, a wedding, a funeral, or a reunion, but maybe for dinner, or to be social, or most often, for no reason at all. I wonder if I took that for granted as a child. I certainly miss that dynamic now as an adult.
My husband has a similar story. While my his roots are overseas, growing up, many of his family members were moving to the United States or already in the States and settled. So as his equally large family settled here, he too was surrounded by a network of elders, aunts and uncles who helped raised him, and cousins, who were like siblings, seemingly down the street and within reach in love and in mischief.
I think about family, our families—my own growing family. I think about how our kids won’t exactly have that experience of growing up with aunts and uncles, cousins as siblings—not in the way my husband and I did. I think about how that might impact them (if at all), or what we can do to make sure they have important bonds with the few aunts, uncles, and cousins they do have.
Just a few weeks ago, I listened as my mom-in-law reminisced about her family. I know that with my husband and I quite a distance away from either of our extended families, the distance is an ache in both our mother’s hearts. Today, our families are not round and full like they were in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, when a house full of children was often the social norm. In this modern day, we are making different choices for our lives. We have moved and settled where our careers will flourish and where our undergraduate or graduate educations have left us. We are often having less kids, a smaller, more nibble family, and are creatively carving out our options in education and career. When I feel nostalgic, thinking about options of living closer to either my husband’s or my own extended family, I can’t help but consider that the everyday reality of family doesn’t always look like it does in my nostalgia laden dreams. The idea of family is as lovely as it can be colorfully complicated. Our family dynamics are often woven with splendor, wrinkles, and spurs.
When I consider what I dream of in my own family (my husband and kids), I imagine an unconditional love of family that provides something indescribable, something unspoken, something memory can only attempt to remind us of in pictures, stories, laughter and tears. I often think about how without family nearby, our friends have become family and how our village of people help us “raise” our children, keep us grounded, and keep us stable. I am reminded that “love” is in blood, work, and words—family is in friendship and sometimes that is just enough, all we have—for now.
However, even as we have our most vital and precious friendships, I can’t help but wonder how life would be different if my own family lived near our extended family; how visits in person would replace Skype, phone calls, letters, packages in the mail, distance. I wonder about our friends who do live near their families, and how that impacts their lives, their children’s lives. I wonder about the compromise in our choices. We do have choices today that our grandparents and parents did not have yesterday. That is the beauty in the spell of our changing lives, in our changing family dynamics. And while the love of family is often unconditional, when we love from a distance, there seems an uneasy truth, a dizzying tradeoff of time and presence that we can’t get back. It is family (however each of us defines it), that binds, shades our walk, colors our tongue, leaves a bold and permanent mark on our lives.
What is family? They were the people who claimed you. In good, in bad, in parts or in whole, they were the ones who showed up, who stayed in there, regardless. It wasn’t just about blood relations or shared chromosomes, but something wider, bigger. We had many families over time. Our family of origin, the family we created, and the groups you moved through while all of this was happening: friends, lovers, sometimes even strangers. None of them perfect, and we couldn’t expect them to be. You can’t make any one person your world. The trick was to take what each could give you and build your world from it. –Sarah Dessen, author of Lock and Key