During the 1992 presidential election between Bill Clinton and George Bush (the first one), the issue of "family values" was hot. Two definitions of family emerged from the campaign. When republicans talked about family, they meant a traditional, nuclear family with mother, father and children living under one roof. When democrats discussed family, the meaning was much broader and included the whole country. I found I identified with the broader definition. For me, families are not necessary related by blood or legal adoption.
After getting a divorce from my father, my mother was left with four children. Our natural father abandoned us, and Mother had to be on welfare for awhile. We were greatly impoverished. We had enough to eat, but we lacked things we needed like boots in the wintertime, warm underwear, clothes that fit, and good haircuts. My mother had to go to work to support us, and my oldest sister had to grow up over night and take care of us while Mother was absent. Our life was full of upheaval and often chaotic. But three years later my mother married my stepfather who had three children of his own plus two from his first wife. After they got married, they had one more child together, our brother Daniel. Although we were not all related to each other -- and in fact, my stepfather's step-children from his first wife were not related by blood to any of us -- we were definitely a family. In all, there were ten kids. My step-father supported us all as an Operating Engineer (and acted like he was the luckiest man in the world).
Children need stability and security, and our stepfather brought that to us. He was always there when he said he would be. We could go to him with our problems and he would give us good advice. He brought home groceries every Friday night, and came to all our school events. My grandmother (Mother's mother) became "Gra'ma Pauline" to all the children, not just to her "real" grandchildren, and sent a small allowance to every child each week. We wrote to her frequently telling her what we had done to help our mother and what we were doing in school. We didn't have much social life -- there wasn't enough money to go to movies, for instance, so we entertained each other. We ate dinner together every night without fail, and there was always a lot of lively conversation and arguing. We played endless games of scrabble, chess, Uno, and Yahzee. If we started to fight, Mother would get us to sing songs. My stepdad taught us to play cribbage so we'd be good at math in school. We all rode together on the school bus, and we stuck together in school. For example, when our little sister Ellen got beat up by a bully on the playground, our step-brother Jim, who was fifteen, took care the problem, and it never happened again.
My definition of a family is that it is a group of people who know each other very well and support each other. If you get in trouble, you can go to this family, and even if they are mad at you at the time, they will help you. All the members care about what happens to all the other members. This is not say they never quarrel, or that they always like each other, but they feel a sense of connection to each other. In a sense, they take responsibility to protect and defend each other. Each member is an essential part of the greater whole. The family is where you get a sense of belonging and where the other members need you. All the members don't necessarily live under one roof, either. In our case, Gra'ma, who lived in another state, was an integral and important member of our combined family.
Now that we are all grown up and gone from home our separate ways (and Gra'ma has passed away), my mother and step-father live in a little country village with only 156 people in it. My mother has often said that living in such a tiny community is like living in a big family (" ... only you don't love them quite so much," she says). Two years ago in February my stepfather had a stroke. One by one all the family members came home, even the ones from Texas and Illinois -- although not all at the same time. My mom got tears in her eyes when she told me how the people in their town responded to the crisis.
The first day she found a full cord of wood split and stacked beside her back door. She never did find out who put it there, but it certainly did come in handy (they heat with wood). At the local restaurant where they eat breakfast nearly every morning, the owner bought a get-well card for everyone to sign and took up a collection to help her pay for gas to go back and forth to the hospital. People were generous and gave her nearly two hundred dollars (all in nickels, dimes, quarters, and ones). It really did help. During the two weeks while my stepfather was in the hospital, my mother was not allowed to pay for her breakfast either. In the morning when she would go down there, she said that sitting among her neighbors at the big "family" table was like sitting with blood relatives -- without embarrassment and with a sense of belonging and inclusion.
Once he came home, my stepfather had a visitor nearly every day -- brief visits that meant a lot to him. One Tuesday night he asked my mom to drive him to the local bar where he plays shuffleboard once a week, so he could watch the game (he wasn't able yet to play). When they arrived, all the men came running outside and practically carried my stepdad inside. They helped him get seated so he could watch the game, and it didn't matter that he drooled, slurred words, and could hardly get a sentence out clearly. I remember when I was a little girl, if I got sick and had to be in bed for a few days, when I came back to the dinner table my stepdad would be overjoyed that I was back. It was like that when he returned to shuffleboard in their little town. Like a family. A family is glad for you when you make progress, no matter how small, glad when you get up after you've been down, glad when you come home from the hospital.
You might think my folks were somehow special in this country village, but that is really not the case. People there look after one another -- even if they don't particularly like each other. Take old Art and Pete, for example, who quarrel publicly in the restaurant every now and then and sometimes don't speak to each other for weeks and months at a time. Recently, Pete suffered an adverse reaction to medicine he took. He fell and was unable to get up from the floor. The first morning he failed to appear for breakfast at the restaurant, the folks simply noted, "Pete's not here today." The second morning they thought he might have gone somewhere, to visit his son maybe. But the third morning they sensed something wrong. Pete wouldn't go off for three days without telling somebody he intended to go. Art decided to investigate. He went to Pete's house and found Pete on the floor, called an ambulance, and probably saved Pete's life.
Just like in a traditional family, in a tiny community the people's lives are for everyone to see, like those informal museums…