I’m still on a high after spending the night with my oldest “bestie,” my friend into whose arms I all but fell when I met her, another new kid, in December of 7th grade. While we no longer talk deep into the night in my creaky old four-poster bed, huddled against the chill in my downstairs bedroom, we still talk about the big issues we wrestle with.
When it comes to losing parents, we’ve been on more or less the same schedule. One of her parents died in 1998, while I lost my Mom in 1999. She lost her surviving parent last fall, and I lost Dad in January.
I told her, “I’ve just had a few questions I’ve been thinking about: who am I now, what is my relationship with God, and how should I define my family from now on? That’s all.”
Until Dad died, my brothers and I were still connected through him. We were still the original family. We were sons and daughter, brothers and sister. I’m proud to say that we remained very aligned in our understanding of Dad’s wishes, and in making decisions about his care when he became more frail. Calling on my brother’s to “sub” for me when I needed to be out of town meant that we had fewer opportunities to be together, but Dad still served as the magnet that brought us together.
Now that pull is gone, and the volition to gather must come from within us. Family, at this point, becomes a choice and not a given.
Into this time of re-definition comes my friend, fresh off reading a book ostensibly about parenting, but with implications for any of us at any point in our lives. She was intrigued by the author’s suggestion that families should have a written mission statement, a code, if you will, of what the family stands for.
Though my father did bring some unusual practices into our family – using a flip chart to document family goals and objectives (which my mother then dutifully typed and submitted as minutes to be approved at the next family meeting) – we didn’t have a mission statement. But I have no doubt about how my mother or family viewed or defined family.
If you were family, you were “in.” Period. You could add to family – inviting “orphans” who didn’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving, for example – but you couldn’t delete family. Mom even included ex-wives in dinner invitations as long as the current spouse wasn’t present. When his mother was in a nursing home for several years following a broken hip, my father visited her every night after dinner. When my mother lost her father, her mother came to live with Mom and Dad. My mother, who was an only child, prized family and considered her first cousins, Harriet and John, to be siblings.
Without question, there were family members who did some lousy things to Mom and Dad along the way. But none were ever cut off. The welcome mat was always out even if contact was limited.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have family members who are fundamentally decent human beings, and for them, “family by design” rather than “family by blood” makes sense. But I think those situations are rare.
Defining and defending family is more than something I do for myself. It is something I do as a message to my children.