Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Thinking About the Meaning of Family

My family c.1957
First of all, let me say I have a small family.  I live with my husband in a rural area 30 minutes east of the largest city in New Mexico. My two grown daughters moved here in 2007 and 2009 and live nearby in Albuquerque.  I consider that a blessing. Matt, Mary's fiance, has been part of our lives for nearly 3 years and he is considered family already and is always there when we plan holidays and dinners together.  Now as for the rest of the extended family, they are quite far away. I've  two step-daughters, their husbands and their young children in the Midwest. I have one sister, a brother-in-law, a niece and nephew in Tennessee, California, and Oregon.  I have two aunts and one uncle far away who I rarely, if ever, hear from. I have some cousins in Missouri, Kansas, and North Carolina and two others whose whereabouts are unknown to me. There are also the handful of second cousins who I exchange Christmas greetings with each year telling each other about the milestones of our lives.

With my daughter Mary marrying Matt later this month, I've been thinking a lot about Family. When you have a small family and most of them are far away, how does one keep connected?  How do these familial relationships fit into the Big Picture of our lives? Some members of my family are arriving in two weeks in Albuquerque for the Wedding.  It's been years since I've seen them.  Family members to-be (by marriage) are arriving from Washington and other places. I've not met them yet (with the exception of a couple of Matt's sisters). After the Wedding, will I ever see them again?  Seemingly, my only sibling has nothing in common with me. Less so do I have anything in common with her husband.  So we rarely talk on the telephone, or communicate via email or snail mail.  Her attendance at my daughter's wedding is something I did not expect, but something I am looking forward to.  A reunion with my sister! I am excited about seeing her and her daughter and her husband once more. So many years to catch up on. 

So what are these people to me, people I know little to nothing about but who are connected to me by marriage or blood-ties? Family historically was always a refuge.  A refuge when you needed nourishment, when you needed someone to care about you, a place to return to when things got tough.  A family was always there for you when you had children and needed help raising them.  A family was there when you got sick or disabled, old and infirm.  A family was the first to educate you about the world and teach you values. A family was there when no one else cared.  But how true is this today in modern America, where we frequently don't live anywhere near family members?  How true is it when individuals get "lost" through financial ruin. drug and alcohol abuse, and other social and physical situations that isolate them from family?  I think that this is especially true for small families who are distantly located from one another.  We go it alone or connect with friends to survive the challenges we face in our daily lives.  Some people connect with new "families" they find in churches or on social-networking sites on the internet. I think that Americans' obsession with dogs (and other pets) as their closest companions is their seeking the love of "family". In this way, people in America can create a family where there is none or where they have been alienated from their natural family, perhaps because of their life-style choices or their differing values.  Sometimes people are thrown out of families because of their sexual orientation. They are told they are not wanted.  Sometimes, this happens with very young children who are abused by their family and they learn not to trust those closest to them. A void may develop where in our heart we long for connection.

For me, my connections to family are very important. But with the passing of my own mother and father, I've lost the connections to my extended family. I have very few really close friends, but they live far away.  I long for ties that are not really there.  I am disappointed when there is no reciprocity from those I want to keep in touch with.

Without a large and close family, I have developed a strategy to live in this world as a solitary person. Without family, learning to be alone and surviving on one's own become important life skills.  It sometimes makes us into rather selfish people.  I think the fact that I had but one sibling who I am not close to has contributed to self-centeredness.   I find meaning in my solitary pursuits of art, writing, reading, hiking and gardening.    My husband, a solitary man himself, and I enjoy doing things together, like camping, travel, plays, concerts and films. We are late-life companions who provide for each other the friendship and support that we need.  Because in the first six decades of our lives we grew up in different regions and had different families, we don't have a lot of shared life experiences.  Our memories of things, events and people are often quite different. When getting together with members of each of our families, it can be rather confusing, even stressful, as we view the shared memories as an outsider. Navigating the values and shared subtext of each others' family is akin to walking through a minefield, never quite secure in our footing.

So now I come to the pending wedding of my youngest daughter.  She has found love and connection with her fiance and is looking forward to the expanded family ties of her new husband-to-be.  She wants to have children, buy a home, and build a life with her new family close to us and her sister.  I welcome that..  Recently, she and her finance have begun to attend a church.  They have asked that the Reverend marry them. They have found great warmth and acceptance within that church. They also love their two dogs who need and love their humans.  I hope the very best for them, Matt and Mary, and all the benefits of family and reciprocity from their extended family.

In this world, I believe we need to give and to get as much support as we can from wherever we may find "family".  "Family" is where you go when you have nowhere else to turn. Things are not always as we may wish them, but we certainly can make the best of whatever we may find in our daily lives. It helps to be open, gentle, and to laugh a lot. This is how we all survive Life.

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