The Genteel
November 21, 2017
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"Two Families". Photo courtesy of anyjazz65, Flickr

What is it about travel that always makes you homesick? I've been thinking about the idea of family lately. What it means, and what it doesn't. Who is, and who isn't. Is blood thicker than water? That sort of thing. Maybe it's that I've started watching Gilmore Girls for the first time, from the beginning. Maybe it's that I'm in the middle of a trip with one of my best friends visiting her family, a trip that stands to test the bonds between mother and daughter, and the ties between the people that hold it all together. Maybe I'm feeling guilty.

Being able to spend time with someone else's family – in their home, during their daily lives/errands/appointments, outside of holidays – is like being stuck in some parallel version of Through The Looking Glass, a mirror image of what my relationship with my own familia is not. I'm in Canada's Prairie region, a beautiful, vast, empty and undisturbed corner of the country that I'd seen only in Group of Seven paintings, or in a CBC (Canada's BBC) miniseries. It's the longest I've ever spent with any other "family" but my own since I turned legal and set out to carve out a life on my terms, and all that other make-it-on-your-own stuff.

In many ways, I've always regarded the concept of family itself as something beautiful, vast, and empty, created to give us a sense of self-worth, and purpose through our own self-consciousness.

In many ways, I've always regarded the concept of family itself as something beautiful, vast, and empty, created to give us a sense of self-worth, and purpose through our own self-consciousness. "That to exist as part of something greater is the point of existence", as my father would say. When I was younger, my parents, siblings and I didn't go on vacations or travel extensively together. As a member of the first generation in Canada, we grew up with a very limited reach of what we called family. There were aunts and uncles (and eventually their children), but we never actually grew up together. There were intermittent gatherings that grew few and far between as we settled into our "new world" lives in our own ways, in our own pockets of the city. My eldest sister headed to the west coast and now lives happily with her husband and three children, and my other sister ended up in the outer-outer-outer boroughs to do the same. Eventually, when I was finishing high school and preparing for university, my parents had the worst possible timing and moved north. It's things like this – paired with a colourful history that surrounds my childhood and adoption (which I won't go into right now) – that have made the concept of family, and relating to them on deeper levels, difficult for me to understand. We love each other, I know that; when I need them, I know they're there.

Florence Nightingale once wrote, in her better-known essay Cassandra, "The family uses people, not for what they are, nor for what they are intended to be, but for what it wants them for— its own uses. It thinks of them not as what God has made them, but as the something which it has arranged that they shall be." When I wrote about friendships last month, I made strong allusions to the idea that friends are like family to me, a close few you should hold fast because love is thicker than blood, even if blood is thicker than water. I might never get married, or find love, or build close ties with my immediate family. Best friends, in the end, are like a chosen incarnation of what we define as inherent, and to be around people who love you like that is a very lucky thing indeed. So when one of them asked me to accompany her as her mother began a rigorous chemotherapy treatment, it was my call to action; she needed me. In the last ten years, the two had only seen each other on three occasions, a handful of days at a time. What I encountered when I touched down was something entirely unexpected. They seemed to have picked up where they left off, just older and wiser and less me-against-you. I toured the family home, looked at old photographs and shared memories. I saw new layers, and a new light to the oldest sociological and human institution known to mankind.

And then I met relatives and neighbours and friends of friends. They had traveled from all over because a visit from the eldest daughter was an event, a moment. Appetizer and cheese platters were laid out, brown cows were served. So warm, and so welcoming, in ways I've never trusted my own to be, a family I'd kept at a distance for whatever reason. Since I was a kid, I've always been unsure of how people would react to my unusual family situation, and it worked both ways. I was the youngest, seemingly more accomplished, yet equally reckless with my actions and my emotions. When I return home every three months or so – with a new tattoo, or a new hair colour – it feels like my parents and I are meeting each other for the first time again. 

Although I've already examined the changes in marriage and divorce rates, I hardly thought to touch on the changing face of the family. When a mother in India gave birth to twins at age 70 in 2008, I thought it was a marvelous thing, a sign of science and the future. There was a sign of choice: in how we live, in how we procreate. When gay marriage became legal in New York this year, it produced a moment of excitement in me that we'd potentially inched one step closer to new policies that would make same-sex adoption easier, and more accepted. This, in turn, would produce an entire new army of familial structures. Indeed, the face of the family is changing. A recent article in Psychology Today points to advances in science as a key player in how we relate to one another biologically. It says that age gaps between siblings could get wider, with 70-year-old mothers and ovarian transplants that make conception easier. We're not just talking about shifting age gaps here; we're talking about creating generations within generations.

I asked my surrogate mother for the weekend what informed her idea of family. "It's complicated," she told me. "There's a lot of work that goes into making a family work, especially when blood isn't enough." Was blood ever enough to bind anything other genetics? Family was always such a given to me, and decided on by sociological parameters; something I've taken for granted and tossed aside for reasons that are still uncertain to me, and something I'm still asking questions about. Sometimes, you find your answers and understand your mistaken logic in the most unexpected places. Other times, you realize you've had this all along.

I've got a phone call to make. Don't you? 

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