The Family Quilt

 

by John Tyler Connoley

March 23, 2004

 

When Mom was a kid, her nuclear family consisted of her mom and dad, one sister, two brothers, one cousin and his wife, and Grandpa and Grandma. They all lived together in an Indiana farmhouse, where forty relatives (the extended family) would arrive each Sunday afternoon for chicken and dumplings. Family holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, included even more people, many of whom were not strictly relatives, but were "Church family." Like a quilt, Mom's childhood family was constructed from many pieces, sewn together with love.

 

When Mom grew up and left the house, she became a missionary and moved to Africa with her husband and two kids, but she took her family values with her. Family in our house meant all the people we cared about. Of course, we had our relatives in America -- Dad's brother and sister, Mom's siblings, our Grandparents, and the cousins -- but we also had our missionary family.

 

My sister and I called all the missionaries Aunty and Uncle, which I suppose made their children our cousins. When I think of my earliest memories, I think of eating Aunty Eleanor's cherry cheesecake, being scared by Aunty Rosemary's funny faces, drinking tea with Uncle Eugene, and visiting Uncle Ora and Aunty Linda in South Africa. In fact, the first time we came back to the United States, the terms "Grandma" and "Grandpa" confused my sister and me. We kept calling them Aunty Grandma and Uncle Grandpa, because that's how one referred to relatives.

 

These Aunties and Uncles who made up my familial world are the people I learned to depend on. They're the ones who taught me what it meant to be a grown up. Their children were the kids I wrestled with and fought with and played Star Wars with. Later, they would become the people I'd pick up the phone and call for help if I needed it. It never occurred to me that family should be related by blood or marriage, or that familial responsibility might only extend to the people to whom you are legally bound.

 

In Zambia, we also had our extended Church family. These were people who occasionally joined us for holidays, and sometimes stayed at our house, but whom my sister and I didn't know quite as well as the Aunties and Uncles. We referred to them as Brother and Sister. My first funeral was for Brother Munsaka, the District Superintendent in my parent's Church. I remember my mother weeping outright for her dear, dear friend. Another Church family member was Alfred (who later became Brother Alfred when he got older). Alfred was University-age and would visit us when he came home from his mandatory military service. I remember sitting on his lap as he told us stories about his escapades in the army. A few years ago, Brother Alfred contacted my mother to see if he and his wife could stay with my parents when they came to the U.S. for a visit. Of course, the answer was "absolutely." How wonderful to have this part of our family with us in America.

 

The idea that a family should consist of a mom and dad, and two-point-five kids is a twentieth century, North-American phenomenon, developed in the suburbs that grew up after World War II. Somehow, with economic prosperity came a limiting of the meaning of family, to the point that family values now have more to do with protecting my little nucleus than with embracing and loving others. But that's not the ethic my mother taught me. Mom gave the word "family" a meaning so expansive as to encompass the whole world. In our house, family included whomever you said it did, and that could be anyone.

 

The way I understood it, family was just another word for the people you loved, and the nuclear family was everyone you could fit under your roof. If your cousin got married and he and his new wife needed a place to stay, then they became part of the nucleus. If Grandma and Grandpa were too ill to take care of themselves, they might join the nucleus too. If a friend needed a bed for few months, he could be part of the nucleus for however long he needed. It didn't matter how or if you were legally related, what mattered was that family took care of each other.

 

This family tradition of inclusiveness has made me quite wary of "traditional family" rhetoric. Why would anyone want to limit the definition of family to a mother, father, and two kids? It's like substituting a quilted placemat for a warm bedspread.

 

Children should be raised by a community -- of Aunties and Uncles, of Sisters and Brothers, of all the people we love. And, if a child's immediate household doesn't include a mother and father, well that's okay, because the quilt is bigger than their little corner. And there will always be adult role models around.

 

Instead of limiting the legal definition of family, I think we should be expanding it. Let our laws reflect the quilts of love we wrap ourselves in. Let the patchwork connections we make with one another be reflected in the way the government treats us. Let people choose their families, and then write the laws to support those choices. To do anything else seems contrary to my family's values.

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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