Why is family so important? Maybe to others, this seems like an obvious question. But for me, it hasn’t always been… For one reason or another, I’ve had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with my extended family over the years. Like many teenagers, I went through a “Who-are-these-people-and-are-you-sure-I-wasn’t-adopted?” phase in high school; then after college, I immediately moved 3,000 miles away, where I’ve stayed for the last 14 years. If you’d asked me five years ago how I felt about my extended family, I’d probably have said that I liked them fine, but that they weren’t necessarily people I felt I needed to spend much more than the requisite 3 hour Christmas and Easter dinners with in any given year…
So when my mom asked me yesterday if I wanted to join her for a girls-only dinner with my grandma, aunts, and cousins (I’m visiting Cali this week for my son’s impending first birthday), I think she was a little surprised to hear me say yes.
My parents divorced when I was nine. The kid-experience of divorce is pretty confusing and reality-distorting, and I’m realizing now that some of the murky feelings swirling around from that time somehow got transferred onto my aunts, uncles, cousins. I made up a few stories to tell myself about how different my family was from my cousins’ families.
- They had intact families. Mine was not.
- They had families untouched by addiction or dysfunction. Mine was not.
- They had families that were happy, where there was always enough money, where ___________ (fill in the blank with any child’s fantasy of a perfect home life). Mine was not.
And, sadly, not only did I believe that my family was completely messed-up and their families were fantastically perfect, but I also imagined that they were judging me (and my family), looking down their noses at our poor, single-parented, then step-parented clan.
And who needs judgment? So I moved on, choosing my own very close-knit “family” of friends in New York City, seeing my extendeds mostly only when absolutely necessary on national holidays.
So, yeah, there’re all those messy feelings… and then there was last night. When I got to the restaurant, I hugged my aunts, my cousins, my grandma. I felt genuinely happy to see them. I’m at a really happy, comfortable, open place in my life, and I enjoyed their company as never before.
It was a night filled with laughter over long-forgotten memories:
I remember… when you first got up on your water skis. You were screaming, “Stop the boat! Stop the boat!” We were yelling, “Just let go!!”
I remember… when you were six years old, how you sang “The Good Ship Lollipop” over and over again.
And wise, loving advice to my cousins and I (all new parents):
Just be involved. Be there. And your kids will be okay.
There’s no such thing as a perfect parent.
Just forgive them and always love them.
As I started to articulate in my post about the paper pillow, part of growing myself up has been rethinking my assumptions about most things. I’ve been looking back at the past with my big-girl glasses on, re-examining each assumption I’ve made, each story I’ve been telling myself about my life. I try my best to investigate with compassion and diligence, gently exploring and re-exploring, “What’s true?”
And what I think is true for me about family, at least in part, is this: Family is important because they remember. They hold a place for the person you were, the experiences you had, the long-forgotten passions and fears and dreams. This memory is important because it helps you see how far you’ve come, and to make sense of how you’ve arrived.
No family’s perfect. I think that’s exactly what I’ve needed to “get” all these years. Because the important thing about families isn’t that they’re perfect. The important thing is that they care. They are the people who celebrate your uniqueness and give you a hand when things get hard.
And I sure am grateful for mine.