I’m lucky. I have a great relationship with my family. I know that this is probably a bit unusual. A recent study by AARP found that more than 50 percent of the population view family as “very important to their lives” across all demographics. Still, I wonder what percentage really get along with their family members, as opposed to those who want this to be true. Especially with how divisive things have become.
Two weekends in a row during August, I’ve had family reunions to attend in Wichita. One on my mom’s side of the family, and the other on my dad’s side. That means that, except for my little brother and his family, I’ve seen nearly all my extended family this month. It’s interesting to see the people I come from. Some of them I remember, and others only vaguely. Still, the DNA we all have in common is obvious. I can see myself in all their faces.
When I was a kid, I thought family reunions were deadly boring. We’d pack the car up early in the morning to drive to someone’s farm in western Kansas, with weird names like Minneola, Fowler and Jetmore. The women would all be in the kitchen, getting food ready for the big meal, and said they didn’t want children underfoot. The men stood around outside, everyone gathered a circle, leaning in around a truck bed, or in that crouching position farmers seem to take to so naturally, like they’re sitting on a stool that isn’t there. Knowing it was impossible to get our father’s attention, with all the men vying for their turn to talk, we felt we might as well have been invisible. But we really didn’t care. Their stories of crop news, weather, and politics bored us any way.
My city cousins and I didn’t really know what to do with ourselves on the farm. After looking at the big harvest machinery in the barn and standing in the giant wheels, chasing the barn cats, and checking to see if it’s time to eat a million times, there wasn’t much to do. Spending time with the country cousins was awkward. We must have seemed like idiots, not knowing how to entertain ourselves. Cream puffs that had no idea what hard work meant, compared to what they put in every day. We had little in common, besides our ancestry, and too little time together to create our own history.
Now that I’m older I realize that the reason the adult conversations seemed so boring is because they didn’t bring up the good stories around children. They waited until we were out of earshot to share family gossip and reminisce about the wild adventures of their youth. They saved up their boring stories and conversations about aches, pains and other maladies for when we were present. Or at least it seemed like it.
I wish I’d paid better attention and listened more. There are fewer of us every time. We all try to piece together the stories of the ones no longer here to challenge the memories and fill in the holes. I am grateful for the family historians that have researched the genealogy of our shared lineage, whose job it’s become to tell the colorful stories they’ve found in digging at the roots of our family tree. It makes me wonder what stories someone might discover about my life after I’m gone, and think about what family means to me.
It’s the experiences that we share that bind us together.
One of my favorite things about having a family is our shared history. Together we remember and interpret what happened in the past, gaining new insights through hind sight. Laughing until we cry over and over again, from old inside jokes it would be too complicated to explain to someone else. People who can empathize with us over past pain and celebrate the good times, revisiting emotions now dulled with time. Building these experiences takes time spent around the people who are important to us. I’ve heard many people’s last regrets are how much time they spent on unimportant pursuits, and how much they wish they’d spent more time with those they love. I don’t want that regret.
Relationships are more important than being right.
I am grateful every day that my immediate family shares the same views on most issues. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like, to disagree so strongly that it would tear our family apart. It would be hard, but I’d hope that I could agree to disagree on differences in viewpoints that I hold dear. Unconditional love doesn’t allow for self-righteousness, no matter who’s right. Another regret I don’t want to live with, is having someone I’m at odds with in my life die before I have the chance to make peace – either between us or within myself.
Family doesn’t have to share DNA.
When Mom comes to town, it isn’t a family gathering without her longtime friend we call “Aunt Sharon.” A part of our family for a long time, Sharon is bound to us through our shared history and love. If we’re lucky, we have friends that are as much our family, if not more, than those we share DNA with. Friends are our chosen family. Sometimes the best choice.
Uninstall the buttons.
The wisest thing I think my brother has ever told me is, “The reason your family knows how to push your buttons, is because they’re the ones that put them there.” But, by the time we get to be adults, those buttons are past history. We change, but every time we get together we revert to how we acted when we were children, and the roles we played. One of the best things I’ve been able to do, is spend one-on-one time with my family members. Getting to know each other again as adults, has helped strengthen these relationships. Although those buttons can still pop up from time to time, I know I get to choose how to react.
It will be two years before my family reunions come up again. We will mourn the ones who have passed and relive their embarrassing stories. Bemoan our aging bodies when the kids are around. Hear the latest installment of tales of our past ancestors. Celebrate the bonds that join us together through the same gene pool. And eat.
Here’s to the ties that bind,