It was only once I had kids that I started thinking about family in terms other than "people who share the same last name as me." As a kid you don't realize that not every family is like yours. Then once you get older you start experiencing holidays with other people and one day someone passes you stuffing that isn't from a box, and you understand that every family is different. At least that's how it happened for me.
I just got back from a trip to Houston to visit my sister, aunt, uncle, grandmother and grandfather. Dad and Adam also flew down from Chicago. This was the first time I'd seen some of them in about five years. It was interesting, in my late-blooming adulthood, to try to make sense of my family in the context of "people who contributed to the person I am today."
Grandmother reads. Their house is filled with books. She recently quit reading a book because the first line was not a complete sentence. She looks pretty much the same to me as she always has, she's gotten cuter. I think because she's gotten so thin her eyes look really big and blue and she's got this little button nose that I wish I had inherited. Grandfather is full of purpose, always has been. I remember watching him open the shades in the kitchen as a kid. I have no idea why this struck me or why I remember it to this day, but he did it so slowly and carefully. The whole wall is windows, so there were a lot of shades and he opened each one so seriously and perfectly. Most people would kind of rush through opening that many shades, and not really pay attention as they were doing it. Not my Grandfather.
My Uncle Mike and Aunt Moira live in my great grandmother's old house. We called her Muddie. I still don't know why, I'm one of the youngest of the great grandkids, so the name was there long before I came along. She lived until she was 106. She was a school teacher and had long hair that she always wore in a bun, sometimes with braids. We went to see the house and get cold Cokes and ice cream sandwiches. Muddie always had cold cokes and ice cream sandwiches and it's a requirement now that anyone living in that house offer them to family members stopping by. There is a doorframe where she used to mark our heights. It's mostly faded, but the best I could tell was that someone was about three feet tall on March 18, 1981. Uncle Mike told the story of my great grandfather who woke up one morning and exclaimed "someone cut down a corner tree!" He was looking at his ceiling made of wooden planks. One of them had three notches cut into it and being a land surveyor he knew that the corner of a property was marked by three notches in a tree. And sure enough, there it was, the plank with three notches.
Looking at that plank, I kind of realized that this was not a story about a person very different and far away from me, like most of the stories I hear or tell. This was a story about a person who is part of me, who might like to know me, who might find it interesting that I get cold in 75-degree weather or that I have dark brown eyes. It made me proud that I've got the blood of a man who can look at a piece of notched wood and tell you that someone is now wondering where the edge of their property is. Furthermore, a small bit of a woman who lived in three centuries lives on in me. There's a part of me that, if cultivated a little bit, has that certainty and confidence of a man who opens shades in a way that makes it memorable to a 13-year-old. And, if not the cute button nose, there's a perfectionism in me of a woman who closes a book after finding that a sentence is not complete. I am my father, in a diluted form, who is a writer like his mother reads and like his father closes blinds, thoughtfully and with certainty, and I am my mother who, when asked what he writes and she loses the words, does something that totally sums up who he is AND who she is. She holds her hand to his chest and says, "he writes this."
Family is not just a shotgun blast of people who share the same last name after all, then. I'm not sure yet in what ratios all these little elements come together in me, but they're all there and that makes me proud. Not that my family is better than yours, but it is mine and it's comforting. Thank you, family.