The definition of "family" has stretched and bent and grown over the
decades. Gone forever is the notion of the 1950s family with head-of-household
Dad going off to work as stay-at-home Mom looked after the 2.4 children and the playful scamp of a dog. Today's family might have two daddies or no daddy at
all, is likely to have a mommy who works outside the home, and may also include
a generous sprinkling of "steps," as in stepparents, stepsiblings, stepgrandparents, and so on.
An economy in recession puts another spin on the definition of family. Cousins and in-laws cohabitate to reduce the cost of living.
Adult children move back in with parents, sometimes with spouses and children
Camping As A Metaphor
In my own life, nowhere is the concept of extended
family more evident than when I look over photographs of recent camping trips.
A recent group photo from a campout showed a dozen family members, none closer
in blood than a niece and nephew. Others were "grands,"
"steps," or "in-laws," kin from extended generations, or kin by marriage.
And this photo doesn't just reveal the family with whom I camp. These
individuals are also the "family" with whom I'm closest, those with whom I
spend all the major holidays, those whose birthdays
and marriages and graduations mean something to me. And some -- technically -- are no
longer related to me in any legal sense.
How Thick Is Blood?
Just as a marriage and the nominal addition of "steps" is no guarantee of
familial affection, neither does the dissolution of a marriage negate the bonds
that are formed between relatives-by-marriage during that marriage. This same family photo, as well as numerous small-group photos from
this and other recent camping trips, reveal that several of my closest
family members are "ex" family: my brother's ex-wife, my ex-husband's son. But
don't you dare call her my ex-sister-in-law nor him my
ex-stepson. Curiously, as the years have passed since the divorces that legally
severed our familial relationships, I have come to simply call her my sister
and him my son. We have grown closer, not farther apart.
The Ties That Bind
So, what defines "family?" I guess it has more to do
with the depth of commitment we have to one another than the ties forged by
blood or legality. It's about whom you call when the going gets rough, and
those who know they can call you. Family are the folks
you think of first when you want to plan an important get-together or
commemorate an important life event.
My "ex-sister-in-law" was the second person I called after my mother died in
the middle of the night. I called most of my blood siblings the next morning.
It's not that I thought she deserved to hear first, it's that I didn't want to
wake my siblings, as we're not really very close. I called her because I needed
to talk to someone who knows me, and because I knew she wouldn't mind being
awakened to listen to me.
And why did my "ex-stepson" and "not-even-daughter-in-law" bring over my
"not-really-granddaughter" to spend her first Halloween with me? Not because
the "real" (i.e., blood-related) grandparents aren't all wonderful people --
they are. But because Grandma Sally absolutely adores Halloween and adores her
grandbaby even more, and my son and daughter-in-law knew it would be a fun, happy,
relaxed place to spend the evening.
Because We Like Each Other
In the end, it's really pretty simple. I and the family members I choose to
spend my time with LIKE one another. I and my two sisters (one of whom
technically isn't), one brother-in-law, seven nieces (one by marriage, three grands), five nephews (three by marriage, one grand), son
(who technically isn't), and daughter-in-law (who technically isn't) FEEL like
family. We enjoy one another's company. We are there for one another. All of us
enjoy board games, Monday Night Football, and good food (heck, even bad food).
Most of us have tickets for a hockey game together this coming Friday. All of
us have plans for a Memorial Day campout this year. We are organizing a
name-draw for Christmas among this "select" group because we feel like family.
And that works for us.
Sally O'Neal and her big ol' family-of-choice
live, camp, and hike in the Pacific Northwest.
Sally has written over 450 columns for sportsmansguide.com.