It’s New Year’s Day, 2011, and I haven’t seen a relative since my last visit with my daughter in Montreal, two weeks ago. Yet I’ve spent the whole holiday among my family of friends.
That may not sound odd, but in ages past, it would have been highly unusual to be so isolated from one’s family for so long, so often.
People lived in small communities, closely connected to everyone around them by history, geography and genetics.
I grew up in such a community, but my family had no history there, and anyway, as an adopted person I had a unique perspective: the first time I ever met a blood relative was the moment my baby daughter was born.
They say you can’t choose your family, but my family was, in a very real sense, a family of choices: my mom and dad’s choices to marry, and then to adopt my sister and me.
And looking back at how our extended family lived, I realize there were always choices about what family meant and required.
My Mom and her four brothers and their families, for example, always considered themselves “close” because, as often at possible, they’d all gather at someone’s place at Christmas time. “Close” was a funny word, since that meant people traveling hundreds of miles to cram together around a single Christmas tree. “Traditional” might have been a better phrase, but even then… it was a tradition aided by a whole lot of gasoline and gumption; hardly comparable to hitching up the sleigh and making the jaunt down a country road to the old homestead, or some such thing.
What was going on then? Simply this: people already joined by genetics were making the decision to join across geography as well, deliberately and instead of many other choices available. That goes double for the spouses who had married into this “close, traditional” family. We kids, of course just went where our parents decided we would go.
Many families have similar stories, and despite their romance, every one has its disappointments. Especially when the kids grow to disagree with their parents’ decisions about family, custom, and tradition. That seems more and more frequent these days: “I love my family, but…” is a common refrain. And for many people it’s not being alone that makes the holidays such a lonely time. It’s being in a group without feeling properly connected.
Sometimes among family it can feel as if everyone’s humming at a different frequency and the result is tension. The higher everyone’s expectations of harmony, the worse the tension seems to become.
It can take years, decades, even a lifetime to resolve and find harmony with family. I’ve been lucky with mine. We mostly get along just great – now that our expectations are realistic, and we’re making better choices about how and when to spend our special moments together. That process took time, for me anyway. I haven’t always made great choices.
With friends harmony comes a little easier, maybe. After all, we choose our friends, and tend to choose friends with whom we can be harmonious without having to work too hard.
But friendship is more than that. It feels as though, even without the DNA, there is some kind of deep coding that causes us to come together, to connect and to express love with common understanding. Thus, in time, friends form into family – and if you’re lucky and work hard at it, family forms into friendship, too.