The Joys of Other Families

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I planned to skip the bar mitzvah of Aaron’s middle child. ( A Bar Mitzah is a religious rite of passage for 13 year old Jewish children.) I’d traveled from San Diego to Miami Beach four years earlier to attend the bar mitzvah of his oldest child and intended to attend the one for his youngest offspring in another two years. Two out of three celebrations would be a sufficient display of loyalty to my old friend. Broke from three out-of-network eye surgeries, I didn’t have the money for a trip to Miami Beach that year.

But as the Bar Mitzvah approached, I began to feel a deep ache, as if I were missing out on an important event in my own family. I’ve learned to trust my gut feelings, so I called Aaron and told him I’d go after all. I took a sixteen-hundred-dollar leap of faith—the cost of the air fare, hotel, and incidental expenses. My faith was validated a few weeks later when I traded a family heirloom and netted an extra sixteen hundred dollars from the transaction, exactly the amount I needed. This trip was meant to be.

I met Aaron when we were both traveling solo in 1988 in Paris. Eight years later I stood up for him at his wedding, where I met his family and all of his in-laws. I’ve been treated like extended family by them ever since. At the Friday night service the night before the bar mitzvah, in which the relatives of the bar mitzvah boy are incorporated, I decided to sit in a back pew. When I ran into Aaron’s mother-in-law in the ladies’ room before the service, she urged me to sit in the front of the sanctuary with the family. I confessed to her that if I sat up front, I would cry, and I did. I used an entire packet of Kleenex while sniffling.

I love these rites of passage: weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals, and I’m deeply affected by them. I recently attended the funeral of someone everyone called Mama Lola. She was the mother of my close friend, Stella. Stella has invited me to many of her family’s events and celebrations—weddings, baby showers, Thanksgiving meals, and Christmas mornings. When I threw a big party to celebrate my book launch, several of her relatives attended. At the funeral, all three of Stella’s adult daughters and two of her grown grandsons hugged me in greeting. I believe I was one of the only non-family members at this large funeral. I met other members of the extended family afterward at the reception—in-laws and several of the in-laws’ parents. Mama Lola had six children, eighteen grandchildren, and twenty-two grandchildren. Everyone I encountered made me feel valued and accepted. I was inspired by the eulogies, delivered by a son and son-in-law, as they extolled the values that Mama Lola instilled in them. She had clearly passed on her welcoming nature, in abundant evidence that day, to her descendants.

I am deeply grateful to these two families for making me feel welcome. I love my immediate family unconditionally. We have nine members, including a new in-law I’m hoping to get to know. We are a living organism existing on two continents, and in perpetual evolution. Within healthy families there’s a constant flux of accommodation, being forgiven and forgiving, changing and adjusting. We must change or we fracture and die. Sometimes everything flows smoothly, and other times the process takes mindfulness and effort. But it is an effort with the deepest rewards.

When we are on the fringes of other families, we reap the rewards of inclusion without having to make the same kinds of effort that our family of origin inherently requires. It is as if these other families lifted the flaps of their big tents and invited us in for a brief while to enjoy all the benefits, but none of the demands, of family.

Being included in the families of my good friends deepens my appreciation of my own family. I am reminded of the importance of acceptance and love as I see it mirrored in other families and feel it from them briefly. At the bar mitzvahs, Aaron’s parents and in-laws marvel that I travel so far to be present. I don’t know how to explain the depth of gratitude I feel toward them for letting me into their tent to enjoy the embraces of their tribe. While I’m with them, I feel at home.

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