Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Family Matters

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

So begins Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. While I don’t necessarily ascribe to Tolstoy’s prescriptive definition of family, it is most interesting to ponder—the Family.

We all have one—oh, maybe not the cookie cutter nuclear family of mother, father, and two children type, but at the very least, we all began somewhere.

I think about my own family. Obviously, as someone who is married with children, I have created my own family circle with my husband, our son and daughter, and their respective partners. Naturally (that’s what I think—but I realize how fortunate this circumstance is) I came from a family—a loving home with my mother and father and two siblings.

What an irony that as a nation we are engaged in an unseemly squabble over the definition of family. Political parties vie to see who can co-opt the term “family.” Family really can mean many things. It does not take Ozzie and Harriet Nelson to create family.

I have an aunt who never married, based on her own choice and the direction that her life took. To say she does not have a family is to completely mis-state her present situation. For a long time she lived in Manhattan, and there she had a close circle of friends. Together these people created a family, sharing lives, meals, spending holiday time together. As someone who was not married, she had no children of her own. However, she has nurtured nieces and nephews (including me). She has become a grandmother in her current neighborhood. When nearby neighbors had twins, my aunt was pulled in to help provide an extra set of arms to hold, hands to care for these girls. She is now their beloved “nana”—not a grandmother in flesh, but certainly in spirit and bonding.

In Robert Frost’s poem
“The Death of Hired Man” two characters named Warren and Mary, a husband and wife, talk about a hired man who has returned “home” to die. While their conversation revolves in part around a definition of “home” some of what they say makes me think of family:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.”

“I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Several years ago, I read Sue Monk Kidd’s
Secret Life of Bees. This wonderful novel tells the story of Lily Owen, a young white teen struggling with an abusive father. She fixates on her dead mother, and sets off on a quest to unravel a family secret. In the process, she discovers a family—made up of three black sisters, who enfold her in their circle of caring.

While I was reading this novel, I attended the General Assembly of the
Presbyterian Church (USA) in Denver, Colorado. During that meeting, a Presbyterian study document on family was presented for our consideration. It was eventually returned to committee because a more conservative minority report did not find the definitions of family included in the document sufficiently Biblical. Perhaps I need not add that I was voting to have the document received.

Family, after all, can exist in many ways. It can exist as the birth families some of us are fortunate enough to experience; it can exist as families created out of a circle of friends and neighbors; it can even exist as strangers who take us in and nurture us in time of need.

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