When it comes to family these days, your extended family, your grown brothers and sisters, and their kids, cousins, aunts, uncles, even grandparents, many of us don’t see them all that much in our day-to-day life, but perhaps catch up with them to celebrate the major milestones of each other’s life. If you’re lucky.
When we lived on the farm, or in the village, and you grew up and married the boy down the street, settled your new family within spitting distance of your parents’ home, or even in your parents’ home, then getting together with family was an everyday thing. Though special occasions raised the ante, if you wanted to hang out with your brother, or send your kids to play with their cousins, you walked across the lawn and down the lane, and you’d find them, most days, tending to their cows or sheep, or working in the barn.
Even when we migrated to the cities, you might find numerous apartments in a single building taken up by various members of the same family group. “Go upstairs to grandma’s while I’m out shopping,” your mother would yell, “and don’t give her any trouble.” The kids might even be fed by the time she came home with the groceries, and they loved grandma’s cooking . She always gave them something sweet to eat that wasn’t allowed in their own home.
With the advent of the suburbs, we spread out into communities and created new family amongst the ex-urban settlers, and grandparents and cousins would come for visits, preferably on Sunday so there was time to relax, hang out, play games, and feel like a real family. My own family engendered familial kinship when my parents and aunt and uncle would trade kids so each couple could go on vacation for a week, or two or three. This meant that seven of us, who lived within a mile or two of one another, would be stuffed together for weeks on end, doubling and tripling up in bedrooms, though we truly grew up together as a result.
But these days if I see my cousins once a year, that’s a lot. We are stretched out from Maine to California, and one family, my sister’s, lives in Norway. Even my husband’s immediate family which has a very strong presence and tight community in New Orleans with over 100 cousins in that sprawling city, gets together irregularly, even if we occasionally vacation together providing precious time for cousin bonding and inducing the feeling that we are participants in each other’s lives.
Certainly the new ease of communication helps regardless of your location in the world and distance from one another, connecting you to people instantly and at little cost. On a recent extended trip my husband I took to Southeast Asia, we regularly chatted with our son and daughter, one or two close friends, and one parent on FaceTime, but all the others just “followed” us on FB or via my blog, and we only connected in their own minds. Tangential.
Bat Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals become the de facto gathering points for family when everyone lives such separate lives. The milestones are acknowledged and feted and then we each retreat to our busy schedules and family connections are identified in conversation only. “Oh, my cousin lives in Pittsburgh,” you say to a friend, when having a conversation about their own recent family reunion, but that doesn’t really bring you any closer to yours.
And there’s no complaint here, just the observation that community and family have taken on new meaning in the 21st century. Close friends declare “You’re like family to me,” and we want that to be true. But does that mean we’ll be transmuting these relationships with fewer visitation rights?
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” So writes John Donne in his metaphysical quest Devotions of Emergent Occasions to understand our emotional dependence on one another, and to create the opportunities that bring us together. We need each other, and we need the milestones to mobilize the disparate family members to assemble, rejoice in the choice moments of our lives, and be community for one more day.