The greatest joy of this long stretch of holidays that starts with the turkey on Thanksgiving and continues to the New Year for me is the opportunity to gather with family — both the one I was born into and adore and the one I built from the heart up.
At Thanksgiving, my actual family gathers most years at the home of one of my nephews, where food and family and friends are all abundant. We’re all welcome to bring whomever we please outside the immediate family. This year, we enjoyed a niece’s best friend, her fiancé and his father.
My extended family and I cover the political spectrum, so conversations can get lively. But we keep one thing in mind: We love each other, not because we agree, but because we love each other. We nurture those aspects of our relationship and that keeps the ideological temperature in check a bit. At the end of the day, we make sure that we’re still family.
When someone has a major home repair that needs doing, we rally. When someone is sick, we step up and help in any way we can. The challenge doesn’t matter — in calamity, we are a team. And we’re pretty good-natured and practical, too, which helps when things go awry.
Those bonds are so strong that I’d venture to say they are unbreakable. And I’m aware that makes me lucky; many families have serious issues, including some that may create a schism that cannot be closed.
Creating another family becomes not just a source of joy, but potentially lifesaving, in that case.
My other family — members of which I have gathered over the years at work and church and my children's schools and through happenstance — is not as different from my natural family as one might think.
My cobbled-together family is bound by shared interests and humor and mutual respect. We also help each other in times of calamity. The essential ingredient is finding things to like in each other and nurturing those things, while forgiving the rest.
To be sure, not all friends are family in that way. The test, for me, is not whether we share a religion or political ideology or even like the same activities. Some of my most beloved friends, for example, are extremely athletic, while I am a gifted cheering section. Some of them are extraordinarily talented with art or music, while I am, yet again, a great audience, inartistic and tone-deaf, but appreciative.
I can tell a friend is family if time and distance could keep us apart and we’d still be great friends. I see one of the friends I love the most at high school reunions every 10 or 15 years, when we both make it to the party. But we remain steadfast pals. I see another once a decade when business sends me to Los Angeles for some reason. I have relatives like that, too, and not seeing them regularly does nothing to diminish the bond.
Family — natural or human-crafted — is a privilege. It’s true, however you came by that family. That’s not, by the way, an original thought. Google it and you’ll find that at least 273,000 others used the phrase before me.
We can wish that everyone had a great family. We can do everything possible to make that a reality, including external measures like parenting classes and family therapy. All the forgiveness the human heart is capable of may not overcome all hurts and damage in a truly dysfunctional family.
Absent real dysfunction, the things that drive wedges in families are typically small, even petty, and could be overcome if people would let them go. It’s the ideological difference, the offhand remark that cut deeply, jealousy or anger that lingers.
Those are a bag of rocks that can be set down. And this time of year is a great time to lighten the load.
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