I’ve been thinking a lot this week about family: the ones into which we’re born, the ones into which we marry, the ones we establish and become part of through close friendships, school communities, hobbies, and so forth. One of Tom’s grandmas passed away this morning, and I’m still processing the sudden death of my friend’s nephew. My parents are headed up for Jack’s grandparents’ day event at his school, and while I’m so happy they’re coming, I’m sorry it’s such a long schlep for them.
I grew up in the same town as my maternal grandparents and grand-aunts/uncles and within several hours of more aunts, uncles and a number of cousins. We all saw each other regularly throughout the year, and because of that, I really felt like I had not only my small nuclear family but also an extended network of people I knew well and who knew me well, people I could call on, spend an afternoon with. So many people’s homes felt like my own, their fridges just another one in which my sister and I could rummage for a snack. More and more, I realize what a gift all this was, and how rare it is (feels?) today.
My hometown neighborhood was also a tightly-knit family of sorts. We took in their papers when they were away, they fed our cats when we were. When Hurricane Rita hit while my parents happened to be in DC, neighbors went over in waders and bailed the flood-waters out of my parents’ home. When a beloved neighbor, G, passed away, everyone went to his funeral, and then another neighbor bought G’s humongous old Cadillac and keeps it so that any visiting kids and relatives have a vehicle at their disposal. We use it pretty much every time we go home. When Jack and my Dad caught a fish last summer but didn’t know how to filet it, we called another neighbor who happens to know everything about fishing; he’s also an orthopedic surgeon and came over after a shift to teach Jack and Dad about fileting and deboning. Mom then fried the fish and we all feasted. I bring you pie, you bring me roses from your yard; you need a ride to the doctor, of course I’ll give you one. All of these special people came to my wedding, and theirs were some of the faces I felt most happy to see.
To a degree, this is decidedly Southern. There’s a presumption of community and generosity that is really beautiful and devoid of burdensome obligation. What you do for others, how you treat them, how you give back, how you are as a family member and neighbor- it feels elemental, innate almost, because it’s just how you grow up.
I think this sense of communal’ness is one reason my sister (and all of us, really) loves Italy. I’ll never forget -and now acutely miss- the evening we spent in a piazza in Venice. Parents and grandparents were sitting outside bars and restaurants enjoying pre-dinner drinks, while kids ran, played soccer and all manner of games as the sun set. Because of the layout of Italian piazze -large squares with everything facing in towards the center; no motorized traffic of any sort- your kids are always in sight and the weight of worry just drips away. You can just enjoy the other adults while simultaneously watching the kids play, whether or not they know each other (or speak the same language).
In many urban American neighborhoods, this is harder. Traffic is definitely a concern, there aren’t a bunch of restaurants on most people’s blocks (where there’s also room for kids to run), everyone is SO busy, and most people don’t have family nearby anymore (we are very lucky to have T’s parents here!). I also think there’s a real hesitation about asking for help though I wish that weren’t so. Reaching out for assistance of any kind helps connect people, and it’s so lovely to know there are folks you can call on freely without worrying that you’re burdening them or not doing your own parental share (we don’t all need to be at pick-up all the time!). This morning, one of my friends called: she forgot to pack a lunch for the school field trip and was at work. Could I please pack one and bring it to her daughter at school? Of course. I was thrilled to do so and so happy she called. These are the ways we make “families” in the absence of or in addition to our own.