Do You Have Family in the Area?

That’s what the lead pastor at my new job asked me at the staff pot luck. I was hired while he was on sabbatical, and now he was back and reconnecting – and in my case connecting – with the staff.

Do you have any family in the area?

It’s a simple question. Standard getting to know you stuff. But for me it touches on the death of my parents, the geographic distance between my daughter and me, the miles between my boyfriend and me. The painful and glorious journey from overburdened caretaker to free and easy single woman to learning at 50 how to be in an adult romantic relationship.

All those feelings – the losses, the gains, the hurt, the joy – well up in me when I am asked a question like that. To manage the seemingly unmanageable mess of emotions I am tempted to swing into sheer intellectual exercise. It depends. What do you mean by “family?” How do you define “the area?”

I could sense it was taking me too long to answer and I worried my new boss was starting to wonder if I was in witness protection and had forgotten my back story. I answered “Not really, not anymore” and gave him the brief version. We talked about loss of parents, discovered our children were the same age and moved on.

The concept of family is so loaded. Sometimes it’s code for “good.” Family values. Family man. Sometimes it’s code for “little kids and their parents.” Family friendly. Family activities. Family Ministry. Sometimes it’s code for “traditional.” A family Christmas. Family dinners.

Sometimes I think I hate the word. I hate the way it has been used to market everything from cookie dough to churches. I hate the way it is use to categorize and segregate people. I hate the word and how it is used because I love families with a fiery hot passion. Real families. Whatever they look like. Whoever is in them.

Married couples who don’t have children. Single people. Older folks who live alone and young college students saving money by living with four strangers they found on Craigslist. They are all part of families. They all buy food and have money to spend. They need what the churches and the parks and the libraries and museums have to offer. But somehow, they stores and the libraries and the churches and the park boards don’t include them in their “family outreach.”

Real living and breathing families are not stamped out with cookie-cutter. They are messy, confusing collections of people. And messy, confusing collections of people are hard to market to and hard to plan around. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they are so important.

For years, my family was my daughter, my mother and my father. We lived together for a while; for a while we lived next door to each other. That whole time we cooked together, we shared chores, we took care of each other in sickness and health. When my parents died, my daughter and I were disoriented. Our family had shrunk by half. It was about then we started referring to ourselves as the Beaty Women, like we needed a new word for this new family.

My daughter and I have not celebrated Thanksgiving together since she went way to college. The break was too short and the expense was too much so close to Christmas. We both had invitations to be with others. I spent the day at friend’s house. She’s in recovery and always invites everyone from her meetings. I did nothing to prepare, just lazed around until it was time to go. I spent the day with a whole lot of adults, two of whom were friends; the rest were strangers. All of us were separated from our “family” – either by distance or visitation agreements or pain caused by addiction. Veronica spent the weekend at a friend’s grandma’s house. She played with little kids, helped bake pies and washed dishes. She definitely had the more “traditional” family Thanksgiving, but with a borrowed – albeit loving – family

Our family has now expanded to include my boyfriend. Hardly a week goes by that we aren’t sharing a three-way text or email conversation about some news item or geeky internet story. We support each other. We give shit and advice in almost equal amount. We share an iPhone family plan.

After my folks were gone, Christmas was hard. Their absence was a palatable presence, painful to the point where we wondered if we really wanted to do anything at all. Then we went “home” with Aaron to his parents’ house. After a family dinner and an afternoon of gifts with extended family, the five of us settled into a quiet evening. We changed into pajama pants and sweatshirts. I sat on the couch with Arron’s dad; he watched a movie while I flipped through a magazine and chatted with him. Veronica curled up in a recliner and read. Arron and his mom moved between the kitchen and the living room, sometimes chatting, sometimes cleaning. We could have gone down to the basement bedroom where Arron and I were staying and watched something on that TV. Veronica could have read in her guest room. But we didn’t. We needed family.

We all need to be part of a family – people we are with not just because we have a common interest or shared hobbies. We need to bond with people outside our demographic. When my father died, I found myself drawn to men in their 80s, especially in grocery stores for some reason. When I saw older men moving slowly down the aisles, my heart ached. I wanted to help them find what they were looking for. I wanted to carry their bags for them and make sure they got to the car safely. I still, no matter where I work, have a folder labeled “Bribes” which is full of cheap stickers to win over visiting children. My neighbor’s 12 year old comes over to hang out and help me garden and we talk about school and music and dogs. My daughter’s friends from high school and now college – including some I am not sure I have met in real life – call me Mama Beaty.

One the things I both love and find confusing about the Millennials is their way of creating families where they are. A group they have bonded with and are loyal to. It certainly has its pitfalls; like any family it is messy and can be abused. It tends to be made of people of just one age and similar views.  But it seems to work for many of the 20-somethings I know. And it is something some of us GenXers could learn from.

I hope you find your family this holiday season. And if you can’t, I hope you make your own.

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