The Real Meaning of Family
Caring, commitment, and shared experience mean more than DNA.
August 17, 2009 - 12:00 am
Sometimes it takes a big event to make us stop long enough to appreciate the things we have and the people we love. A vacation, a wedding, and a death, all within a span of four weeks this summer, did just that for me.
At the end of June my husband’s aunt and cousins drove from Oklahoma to North Carolina on vacation to visit us and to spend some time at the beach. It was the first time my two girls had met their cousins from Oklahoma and they had only visited with their great aunt a handful of times.
It didn’t take long before we were all comfortable with each other and getting along great together. By the end of the week we felt a true kinship. It wasn’t because of blood or DNA. It was because of all the things families do even when they live over a thousand miles away. We had all heard stories about each other through the years. We had prayed for each other during tough times and we had celebrated good news. It didn’t matter that some of us had not met in person. We are family.
At the beginning of July, just a couple of days after saying goodbye, we traveled half way across the country to attend our niece’s wedding in Dallas. It was a great opportunity for my kids to spend time with my husband’s brother and his family whom they seldom see due to the distance.
Besides the wedding itself, sitting up late one night listening to my husband and brother-in-law tell us stories from their childhood was the highlight of the visit. They talked about growing up in a small town where they often walked to the local ball field, then later to the small store downtown for a cold drink. It was a world my kids have only read about in books and they loved listening to their uncle tell stories about he and their dad as children.
Their favorite story of all those he told was about how he used to make handkerchief parachutes for his toy army men. He and my husband would drop them out the window and watch them float to the ground. Seeing how well the handkerchiefs worked, he thought the same would work for him if executed on a larger scale. He told the girls about how he took a sheet and tied it under his arms and climbed onto the roof of the little pink house they lived in at the time and jumped. (Yes, I said the roof of the house.) When he hit the ground it knocked the wind out of him.
Well, he told them, he decided what he really needed was more height and a running start. So he got to a higher part of the roof where he could get a bit of a run before jumping. When surprisingly he was still unable to fly, he determined he was too big and heavy, but he convinced his little brother (my husband) that it should work for him because he was lighter.
During the story, which had all of us laughing to the point of tears, my husband kept pointing to his brother saying, “Remember, he is supposed to be the smart one.” I don’t remember exactly how the story ended, but I know they both survived the great flying experiment.
It was obvious during the telling of the stories the love the brothers have for one another. They shared many experiences growing up, both good and bad. They survived them all and now share a bond that is eternal. When either needs the other, they will be there. They are family.
After the wedding we made our way from Texas to Oklahoma to visit my husband’s mother and father. We did a lot more reminiscing over the week before heading back to North Carolina. We lamented that so much time had passed since we had last seen them and promised to not go so long before the next visit.
Two days after returning home from our three weeks on the road we got a call to let us know my uncle a few hours away was in the hospital and not doing well. My mom and I decided to make the drive the following morning. By the time we were on our way we knew we were going to say our goodbyes and hopefully be of some help to my aunt and the rest of the family.
My aunt and uncle lived around the block from me when I was a child. I stayed with them when my mother worked. I have so many memories from their home — of helping my aunt spread peanut butter on crackers from a big Saltine tin for my uncle’s lunch, of watching my aunt sew, of picking cherry tomatoes (we called them Tommy Toes) in their yard and popping them into my mouth warm off the vine.
I have wonderful memories of my uncle playing with my kids. He loved kids and they loved him. He had a silly, sweet way about him, making funny faces and “cutting up” with them. I was so thankful that my children had great memories of him they would carry through their lives.
As heartbreaking as it was to be in the hospital room when my uncle passed away, and as difficult as it was to watch my aunt mourn the loss of her companion of 63 years, and as sad as it made me to know that I would never see my uncle again on this earth, I could not help but feel an enormous gratitude and appreciation and an indescribable warmth in the presence of family.
I stayed the week with my aunt and was moved by the way her son and daughter-in-law cared for her. Thankfully they had moved my aunt and uncle to a house just a few minutes away from them a few years earlier and had really enjoyed being able to spend so much time together.
My aunt’s daughter not only cared for her mother throughout the week, but found the courage and strength to sing two beautiful hymns without accompaniment at his graveside service.
The little boy that lived next door to my aunt and uncle for many years and called them Maw Maw and Paw Paw, because they were the only grandparents he ever knew, grew up to be in the Air Force. He was stationed in California, but flew to North Carolina to visit my aunt and to serve as a pall bearer. As I said earlier, family is not defined by blood or DNA. It is about shared experiences and love and honoring commitments to each other and being there for one another when needed.
The most important lessons in life are learned when we don’t realize we are being taught. We learn them from quiet example. I witnessed the effects in the days after my uncle passed away, watching his teenage grandsons quietly going about doing little things for my aunt without being asked. Simple things really, like programming her coffee maker so that all she had to do the next morning was push a button. Loving gestures like that showed me they have learned how to love and care for those in their family by watching the examples of their grandfather and grandmother and father and mother and aunt and others in the close knit family.
These are the things — shared experiences, thoughtful gestures, unconditional love and support — that make a family. I didn’t have to go through the emotional highs and lows of those four weeks this summer to know that, but they certainly did help to remind me.