I recently spent an outrageously fun weekend in Chicago, in town for the wedding of a close friend’s son. I barely know the groom, her oldest: she and I knew each other from work, and I didn’t see much of her kids until he was 17 and on his way out of the house.
I have, however, come to know most of the rest of her family, a sprawling, far-flung clan of generous, loving, stubborn, argumentative Irish Catholics who are prone to drama. I met her mom and sister when my friend was in the hospital in Boston for spinal surgery. I had just moved to Vermont, and came down before the operation to lend what support I could. I looked enough like them that during the two or three days that I wandered in and out of the hospital, the nursing staff just assumed I was family. From then on, I was.
My friend moved to the other side of the country a few years later, chasing Mr. Wrong into a second bad marriage. I made two trips to the West Coast for Thanksgiving during that time, and as family members gathered from near and far, I got caught up in the craziness and was gathered further into the fold.
It was a smaller family grouping that assembled in the Windy City last weekend. We talked, we ate, we drank, we laughed; her sister and I spent a day shopping downtown. I bought her a lobster roll at the Conrad; she bought me a pair of black-and-red platform shoes at Nordstrom’s that I would never have purchased for myself. Years had passed since we had seen each other or even been in touch, but it didn’t matter. We had a blast.
At the reception late Saturday night, between the dancing and the wine and the blubbering about how much I loved them and how much they loved me, I stood tall in my sexy new shoes and realized that what I adore about my adopted family is that they make me feel completely free to be myself. Their unconditional and full-throated acceptance outstrips that of my own small, sometimes-repressed clan, whose forebears almost certainly loved their children but often failed to demonstrate it.
I don’t doubt that my family of origin loves me, and I them. But constrained by history and projected expectations, I often feel like a round peg in a square hole. Apart from my father, at each meeting our connection is slowly, awkwardly reforged, hobbled by long-held beliefs and a distance that is cultural as much as it is geographic.
Our families can tie us down or create a sturdy base that grounds us as it allows us to fly free. It turns out that I have both: two points on the horizon that help me navigate stormy skies. How lucky am I?