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What’s the word family mean to you?

It’s a word that gets kicked around a lot in public discourse, and I mean kicked! It’s been so overused, misused, and abused it’s a wonder the word can even stand up on the page. With a hacked up “l” and a torn off “y” our beat-up word becomes fami, then you add a new suffix and you get famished. That seems an appropriate linkage, though one wonders if it’s the concept of family that’s famished or all of us out there craving family but finding none.

I came across a line recently (probably the seed of this post): In the South, family is who you are. And I thought–well, O.K., one more cliché to add to the pile. But then somewhat later in the article the author of that line divulged that she was adopted and didn’t know her birth family. And suddenly that earlier cliché took on many shades of possible meaning. Was the original statement meant to be ironic, or even more incisive? Was the writer’s adopted family who she was or the missing birth family or neither or both? Was she defined by what she knew or what she didn’t know, firmly grounded or endlessly searching? And then what of the regional implications of the statement? Is family really more important in the South (of the United States) than in other parts of the United States or the world? I guess it all comes back to what one means by family.

[When I first visited the upper South in the 70s, I immediately noted two differences from the North (of the United States) where I’d lived till then. First, most of the houses, regardless their size or value or upkeep, had large front porches with well-used rocking chairs and a swing or two. Second, behind many of the “newer” brick ranch houses or contemporary bungalows, beyond the vegetable garden or a screen of trees, the old homestead still remained, its windows and doors boarded up in mute witness or testimony–but to what? These regional characteristics have been diluted in recent decades by an influx of outsiders and the accompanying development, but they are still apparent in many rural areas. (There was a third observation I made on first visiting, an observation that shaped itself into the following parallelism–In the South there’s a church on every street corner and the bars are hidden in the woods; in the North there’s a bar on every street corner and the churches are hidden in the woods. But that’s a subject for another post–or maybe not!)]

What does family mean to you? Ultimately, stereotypes and generalizations, and the expectations that insidiously accrete around them, become obstacles in our search for an answer, to the point where some of us give up looking. It’ll take care of itself, we sigh in resignation and frustration.

Yet identifying the meaning of family, and finding one’s way to fulfillment within that meaning, seems central to a person’s happiness and peace–a fact confirmed, usually by negative example, in much of the world’s literature down through the ages, an understanding that only makes the question that much more urgent.

Perhaps an initial step in answering the question is to realize that family is first and foremost an individual need, a longing for the right mix of reliable companionship and comfort and support. And this need, and its fulfillment, will be unique to each person. The key to the search then is not what the world says you need but what you say you need, what your heart longs for. But that too is only a step toward an answer. What is your heart saying you need for a family?

In Angels Unawares all the rules regarding family commitment and responsibility have been thoroughly destroyed by the characters’ choices and actions in the past. But on this blank slate, the characters ever so slowly begin to sketch the outline of a new kind of family, not by trying to mend old wounds or redress past failures, but by trusting their hearts’ instincts, and following where those instincts lead, even if they have no idea where they are going or exactly why. It’s a radical approach to family. But it surely can’t end any worse than the former one; and it might, just might, provide them with the family they need, one that will last.

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