Yesterday was my mother’s 85th birthday. Last weekend we attended a “surprise” party to celebrate my aunt’s 90th birthday, and the week before that another aunt had her 85th. When I mentioned these occasions to a friend she said “Whoa, you got some good genes there!” meaning she guesses I’ll live to a ripe old age as well. I like that. I also really like that she didn’t ask for a family tree to figure out where my aunts fit in — because really, in tree form, they don’t.
My parents came to Canada in the early 1950s. My father came by boat and my mother followed a few months later in a Super Connie prop plane. Just the two of them, a young, newly married couple off to build a life together. Just the two of them. My father’s family and my mother’s family stayed behind. It was just the two of them.
My brother SkinnyGuy arrived in 1957 and BlueEyes followed in 1961. By the time I showed up in ’64 SkinnyGuy had been to visit the Fatherland with my parents and my dad’s parents had spent 6 months over here, just missing my arrival which occurred on the same day they sailed back across the pond. My parents had already built a network of friends and some of those friends became pseudo-family to us kids. Whether they were our godparents or just close family friends, they were “aunt” and “uncle” and their kids were our “cousins.” We had cousins — real ones, they were just far away and mostly older than we were. We had our grandparents and our aunts and uncles but we only saw them about every 4 years when one or another of us flew in whichever direction was fitting. For being as far apart as we were, we grew up with a fairly strong sense of family. I think we did well. Most of the success of those relationships is down to my parents making sure we learned two languages growing up, making sure we wrote letters, sent birthday cards and shared photos. It was important to my parents and to us that we know our family.
What was just as important was that we had a virtual family over here where we were the only branch of our family tree. I always marveled at the ease with which some people became aunts and uncles to us and at how some family friends never made it past the “Mr” and “Mrs” stage. Where was the line that those people never got across? Funnily enough, some of those Mr & Mrs couples and their kids are still people I consider family. I couldn’t not. There are also of course some members of my actual family that I hardly know at all.
- When I was sick at school but my mom was at work I knew there was another home I could go to and be taken care of. It wasn’t an aunt who was home, it was Frau V–. Her three boys are like additional brothers to me even though we don’t see each other often. When she was sick and dying from cancer her daily question to my mom was “is the baby here yet?” but BoyGenius and Frau V– missed each other by 10 days. He knows all about her, though. She’s family.
- If I needed a place to stay while my parents went on vacation, there was an aunt and uncle who would open their home. My cousins and I tried not to get into too much trouble during those two weeks but we certainly didn’t promise anything. I vaguely remember some broken furniture .. but it wasn’t anything serious. We had each others’ back — that’s what family does. Those people are family to me and I know their grandchildren, their great-granddaughter and their kids’ in-laws. Family.
- When I told my then-manager that I needed a day off to attend my aunt’s funeral in my hometown she actually asked me if it was my mom’s sister or my dad’s. This manager knew (or should have known) that neither of my parents had any siblings here. She needed to justify (or not) the time off I was taking. My manager didn’t care that this woman was someone I had known and loved since I was 3 years old, that I had been through dark days with my aunt and her family. I couldn’t get a bereavement day because she wasn’t really my aunt and it wasn’t really convenient for me to be off. I took the day.
- My cousins’ kids don’t call their aunts and uncles by “Aunt” and “Uncle.” My cousins thought it was too formal and would make them feel too old fashioned .. not to mention too old. I think the kids have missed out. They all call each other by their first names and don’t seem to feel that close bond of “family.” They all get along just fine: brothers, in-laws, cousins, their in-laws, and now we have two new little grandsons in the mix; it just seems a bit distant, somehow.
- My father’s cousin’s children always thought of my parents as Tante and Onkel and us as cousins (the proper title might be second-cousins or something similar). We are just cousins and to BoyGenius their kids are his cousins. We are family.
- There are some branches of my family tree that I have only gotten to know through social networking sites like facebook. We are indeed blood relatives on my mother’s side but she had four brothers who spread across the country and didn’t do very well at keeping in touch with one another. My mom worked hard to keep in touch with her nieces and nephews and the internet has allowed me to get to know next generations. My family grows.
- At my Aunt W’s 90th birthday party I was a little bit shocked when HardWorker asked my cousin, “So how do you guys know each other? How did you meet?” I was thrilled when my cousin, with a confused look on her face, answered, “We grew up together. We’re family.”
Family isn’t necessarily born. In fact, some people strive to get away from their blood relations. Some people must get away from their blood relations. No question. I am lucky that this isn’t the case for me. Does that mean that those people don’t have or shouldn’t have people they call family? No. We are not defined by our families but I think how we define family certainly helps to define us. I have a heart that expands easily and tends towards including most people that I love in my definition of family. What this means is that I have a HUGE family (in my mind). It means I don’t have to explain the relationship when I say “that’s my uncle” (although with certain people I find I do still add “who’s not really my uncle” just for their own clarity). It means I don’t laugh at my Caribbean friends when they talk about some guy they barely know and say “oh yeah, I know him, he’s my cousin,” I just chuckle to myself and know exactly what they mean. It means I am thrilled to bits when my cousin posts some old photos on facebook. It means that a blogger I’ve never met who lives on the other side of the continent has just as big a place in my heart as the next family member in there. It means that I can’t hardly wait to meet two new little baby boys across the ocean or one newish little baby girl just a couple of hours away!
It also means it hurts when my best friend’s kids tell me they’re doing something “just family” on the weekend .. in their minds I’m not family; in my heart, they are. Our definitions differ at this time but that might change someday.
What does your definition of family look like?