I’m not sure it’s possible to glimpse a full picture of how families work until you’ve lived a little time. Until you’ve lost people, or let other ones go, until you’ve built a few families out of several lean years of eating beans and rice and helping each other move, or raising children and helping each other move, or walking through marriages and deaths and helping each other move. You don’t really know just how fluid families can be until parts of your own dissolve, and then somehow it rains again, and family comes together — half familiar, half new — in a whole new way.
I spent a long while under the illusion that families, like histories, were factual — fixed immobile objects that created the topography of our lives. Everything else, then, gets mapped and populated around these fixtures – here a raging, white-capping river; there a gentle green valley; up north that Matterhorn of a snowy peak, jagged and critical. We think of our worlds as concrete and unchanging: my childhood WAS this, this person IS that, that particular relationship – ugh – don’t get me started. …Except of course that any Geology undergrad worth her North Face fleece would tell us that all landforms mutate constantly.
In my twenties and thirties, I saw how I could reshape my geography with chosen family, architecting what I believe are some pretty amazing shapes on my personal globe. I am not certain of too much, but I do know that if I have one talent, it is tricking, conning or otherwise dragging the kindest, funniest and smartest friends into my orbit. It’s an incredible gift to have amassed this collection. And not just for the glitter of them all – but because my friends are the people that make me an immeasurably better person.
I could write a tome about my friends – about the one who sent me a clip of Al Green singing, “Hold On…I’m Coming,” by way of letting me know she was boarding a plane, at a moment’s notice, to come to me when I was in acute crisis. Or another who calls me nearly every Friday, no matter how much work she has or what little person is vomiting in her house, and says, “tell me how you really are.” Or another still who kept me from drowning during the biggest tsunami I’ve faced and says our souls would recognize each other anywhere. Or my husband who sometimes cares more about my happiness than I do myself. If I didn’t have this double-fisted handful of incredible friends to laugh with, to sort things out with out, then I don’t know who I’d be. Or whether I’d still BE at all.
But the families we are born into can hold just as much kaleidoscope discovery. My family of origin, which I had thought of as both fixed and nearly lost, is just as kinetic, as it turns out. My brother and I are back in each other’s lives, in a way more present and clear, after a long fog of unknowing and worry. And I continue to learn, in different ways, from both of my parents posthumously. I am forever unpacking gifts my mother tucked into the 14 years we had together as I come upon new challenges in parenting, or work on getting better at self-care (the latter learning by her antithesis). I have grown greater compassion for my dad, moving to something beyond forgiveness, more akin to the tenderness you might feel as a parent for your small child who is hurting. (Aging without your parents means that even those roles become fluid and shift too). As hard and even baffling as moving back to my hometown was after so many years away, living among these ghosts has broadened my perspective of my past, helped me to drop old stories and create new patterns. And there is relief in newness.
When I first moved back to town, two months after my dad died, I went to his headstone and ringed it with pinecones I found, less to commemorate him and more to say IWASHEREIWASHEREIWASHERE. I was here all along, I was your daughter, I was desperate for your love without condition, I was desperate for your acceptance, I was desperate for you to see me, really see me, standing right here. We are always in conversation with our parents, aren’t we? Later I dreamed of him. In the dream, he had a separate house we discovered after his death, the rooms full to bursting with my and my brother’s childhood books, favorite stuffed animals, art projects and drawings. …As our relationship has changed even after his death, I can see that really was a separate room in his heart where he kept those things, after all.
Even our view of the mighty Matterhorn changes, its rocks and inclines sliding and softening, slow and viscous.
But the most surprising is the family formed without any engineering at all – neither through the luck of biology nor the butterfly net capture of friends and partners. Throughout this time, my stepmother was tunneling through her own intense grief and emerged out of the darkest part right in the middle of my life. It was like she bore her way through her own pain and came up, pick axe in hand and miner’s hat shining, right up through the floor in the middle of my living room. It was a welcome place, and surprising, as that wasn’t our proximity when my dad was alive.
We had spent parts of the past few decades not really understanding the other, my stepmom and me. We are different enough in personality, and often found ourselves in a defensive posture on what felt like opposing teams. But then children were born – which always changes things – and then time and other people’s deaths changed it more. What is so beautiful now is that our differences are not only negligible, but even endearing and something we can tease each other about. And now that we are fully able to put my parents’ old resentments and pain to bed, we can truly see each other. We don’t take this miracle for granted. It’s deliberate and full of tenderness, like slipping out of fatigues and a flak jacket to get into a bubble bath.
It’s a particular brand of family to be first thrown together by circumstance, then to choose love, to choose each other. It’s characterized by a yielding, a release of all the old stories and a willingness to laugh at how, for all our illusions of control, it’s life that changes us. And not the other way around.
All credit for the unexpected gift of my current relationship with my stepmother goes to her gigantic heart and generous spirit. While my learning to yield into an ebbing landscape has been hesitant and cautious, hers has been a driving force. While I grieved the sense of being orphaned, she lassooed me in, good and tight. While I hung on to the old landmarks and their shadows, ponderously analyzing the tea leaves of it all, she simply walked up and rang the doorbell.
I look at family now, chosen and biological, with a bit of wonder. It’s possible to lose the people who felt like the firmament, and watch so much fall away – and then, to witness family coming together again, not only in the way we think of change – as unexpected and new — but also, incredibly, from the old landforms as well.
I mean really, it’s ALL chosen family. There’s no distinction. We are not fixed and static, and so the family is fluid, breeching its levees, altering its course, changing us. The friend family, the biological family, the ones we marry, the ones with whom unlikely circumstance throws us together. It’s all chosen family, even the toughies… the people that make you crazy, the ones who never really see you like your best friends do, the ones who do come around to seeing you, although you never thought they would — even them, your spirit has chosen.
And in this mixed bag of family, I like to think we would all recognize each other’s souls anywhere.