My daughter Jetanne (Tan) recently sat down with her eldest daughter Simone (Mone), almost 4, to explain blood family, beyond her home, beyond sister Naomi and Moma and Papa.
“Gia (that’s what Mone calls me) is my mom,” Tan said. “Randy is my sister and Jay is my brother. Your grandpa Hughie lives in the clouds.”
“With my birthday balloon?” said Mone, who has a great memory and recalls her 3 balloons from her birthday last year flying away.
“Yes!” said Tan. “Nona and Nono are Papa’s parents and Zia is his sister.”
“That’s my whole family!” said Mone.
Family is her awe-inspiring safe place, her accepted place, a place of unconditional love swirling around. Just like my own growing up: a set of parents and a big brother, aunts and uncles and cousins and then, nine years later, a sister. Unfortunately for me, my grandparents lived on the east coast, so seeing them just once a year I didn’t develop a deep bond.
Years go by, and you look at the same faces, over and over, at family dinners and holidays, and you take it for granted, thinking it will always be this way. But, out of necessity, family changes. People bow out – by choice, by death – while other people move in – by choice, by marriage, by birth.
Like Mone so far, my immediate family was pretty basic, with one set of parents and biological children. I’ve no idea what it would feel like to grow up in a family knowing you’re adopted, that perhaps one parent or both didn’t want to, or couldn’t, raise you. In elementary school I had a close friend whose older sister was adopted and the distinction between the two daughters was uncomfortably palpable. For instance, my friend had a horse, riding lessons. Margaret – and the name was drawn out, like Marg-uh-ret, like a problem – did not. It’s possible Margaret wasn’t interested in horses, but I always felt bad for her because of the “adopted” label. Was it that important? How did she feel? At the time, I was heading into adolescence and just wanted to fit in. I was pretty glad not to be adopted.
Thank goodness adoptions don’t carry a stigma anymore. And quite likely high profile ones, like those of Angelina and Brad, have helped in generating open-mindedness. And what about Elton John? In structure, family is not limited to just a mom and a dad; we can have two dads, two moms. And with blended families, you can have kids that are hers, his, theirs. I chatted with a woman on the weekend who has two kids living with her. She also lives with a boyfriend whose two kids are sometimes with them AND she’s hosting teenaged twins from Mexico who are brushing up on their English at school in Canada for a year. Aside from having a ridiculous grocery bill, she’s pretty happy. And it sounds like all the kids are happy and doing well in school.
Diversity. Families burst with diversity and it makes sense, yes? I mean, look around. When I people-watch – in my city, in any city I’ve been to in the world – I see differently-hued bodies of such varying shapes and sizes, I find it fascinating that any one person can walk into a store and find something that fits. There are more than 7 billion people on the planet, speaking over 6,000 languages. If you delve into the study of DNA at all, you’ll find that, surprisingly, this vast diversification originated in Africa some 70,000 years ago from just 2,000 people. We were almost extinct! Says geneticist Dr. Spencer Wells, changes in our behavior allowed us to survive and expand. There’s a good message, huh?
If you’re interested in tracing your DNA back, of knowing exactly where you come from, you can get a test kit for $149.95 from The Genographic Project at www.nationalgeographic.com. It’s a nonprofit organization with proceeds going to indigenous groups throughout the world, so that they might retain traditions and activities unique to them, such as how they weave or carve.
Getting back to Mone’s blood family, you’ll note that my husband B did not get an explanation as B is not Tan’s father. B’s been in Mone’s life since birth though, so she just knows he’s family and understands Gia and B are a team. Check out this text Tan sent me the other morning: “The girls are being Gia and B and putting their babies to bed ‘no bugging around’.” When the girls play Gia and B at my house, Mone tromps around in a pair of my shoes, Naomi in a pair of B’s.
After Hugh died and my family was abruptly and forever altered, I had lots of time to think about what family is, what it means to me. I decided that family is whoever keeps showing up. Hopefully with a smile on their face and food in their hands! Ha. Embrace and enjoy your family, however big or small, whatever shape, color and size it comes in. Family is home and home is where the heart is.