Space and Time Enough for Family

By , November 8, 2009

Since I was young, I’ve loved reading books set before the early 19th century. In many of them, if the owners of a large house, particularly one situated out on the moors, decided to throw a party, that implied that their guests would be invited to move in with them for a month or more. A Christmas “party” could mean a giant sleep over through the whole season! This seemed to be the fashion because these estates were remote, and travel to them was a difficult, dangerous undertaking. It also suggests a less-hurried life, more conducive to long, pleasant associations. Compare your last planned visit with family or friends to one in which you would have weeks of uninterrupted time with them. “Visiting” would cease to be an obligation that must be attended to properly within the limited time available. It would stretch out into long afternoons and evenings of conversation or companionable silence. There would be space for time alone, time for various groupings among the family, time for meaningful interaction. Visiting would become communing. Scheduling would become meaningless beyond agreeing when to get together for meals, games, or outings.

This brings to mind the concept of “family,” a word that for me has a much larger meaning than some people might be willing to accept. I believe in blood ties, and the importance of the nuclear family, but I also accept that families can be built as well as born.

Families can be created by bringing together people who love each other, whatever their ancestry or associations. Each traditional family begins, after all, with the marriage of two people who are not related. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the same bonds can be formed in larger groups? We can adopt grandparents, uncles, aunts, children into a family, can’t we?

If this seems strange, consider my upbringing: I have had four grandmothers and five grandfathers. My mother’s family accounts for the extras. Her parents divorced. My grandfather remarried and my grandmother acquired a common-law husband. When my mother was in high school, she stayed behind to continue school when her family moved away. The couple who housed her and cared for her during that time, making her a member of their family, became my grandparents when I was born. After I grew to adulthood, my blood grandfather passed away, and his second wife, every bit as much my grandmother as any in the blood line, eventually married again. The wonderful man she married became my grandfather. While I regrettably have not had the opportunity to get to know him well, he is my grandfather through the power of my love for my grandmother, and her love for him. I have several aunts, but the one I know the best is my mother’s half sister—a technicality that has no meaning to me whatsoever. She is my aunt, and I don’t love her any less for our reduced blood tie. I know her better than my other aunts because she came and lived as a member of my family for two extended periods when she was a teenager.

After all, other than similarities in looks and temperament, how does blood enter into it? When I learned that men and women I called “Grandma” and “Grandpa”were not actually related to me, that was a curiosity, but made no difference to my feelings for them.

My example isn’t even that extreme. I’ve known many excellent families where the relationships are untraceable.

Perhaps this is why I’m especially touched by books and films that describe a wider concept of family. There’s Rat and Mole’s extended cohabitation (before moving in on Badger) in The Wind in the Willows, and the film version of Under the Tuscan Sun, in which Frances answers an accusation that a young man who works for her has no family by saying, “That’s not true. He has me. I’m his family!” The film Cold Mountain presents one family forged from the tatters of several in the aftermath of the American Civil War. These and many other stories impress me with the myriad possible family configurations that extend beyond the man-woman-children model without losing meaning or value.

Perhaps the only requirement is that one’s heart be open to the possibility of finding and accepting people worthy of love.

Feeling this way, imagine how wonderful it was to find the homestead we now own, a compound complete with a small guest house. I immediately saw the potential to live out my childhood dream: the buildings may be small, but there’s room to pitch tents on the grounds if necessary, room to spread out and relax together. There’s a common area upstairs in the main cabin that can fit extra sleepers. There’s room—room for family.

In the three years we’ve been here, we’ve had some good family visits. Some of that family can claim blood ties, others claim ties of affection. Some of these visits have been almost long enough. We haven’t achieved our full potential in this regard, but we’re ready to make it happen should the opportunity present itself. Because, as the First Rule of Family dictates: “There is always room.”

You will find a version of the essay above, as well as writing on similar and related topics in Sacred Coffee: A “Homesteader’s” Paradigm by Mark A. Zeiger, available in print, eBook, and audiobook editions. The published version will likely be expanded, clarified, or updated from what you have just read.

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