Family Is Relative Print
Written by Jenni Person, BT Contributor   
November 2017

In celebration of community as clan

Abigstock-Roasted-Turkey-Thanksgiving-Ta-199535101s November ushers in the holiday season, anxiety is in the air. There’s a famous scene in the movie Avalon in which an immigrant Jewish family at the turn of the 20th century sits at a long assortment of tables, pushed together into one long table for the Thanksgiving meal. The table runs from dining room into living room.

They await the arrival of the last family members, an aunt and uncle who are always late and who always insist that the meal not start without them. But this time the gathered family, including a whining children’s table and 20 or so other annoyed cousins, aunts, and uncles decide not to wait. They pass around the bowls of food, and the turkey is presented and sliced.

Just as everyone begins to dig in -- the tardy couple walk through the door. And the quintessential family feud ensues. “Your own flesh and blood, and you couldn’t wait? You cut the turkey without me?”

Who among us doesn’t have a similar family story? Our “own flesh and blood” can be problematic. Almost everyone I know grew up with estranged relatives for reasons known and unknown.

To this day, I don’t really know why my father’s sisters and their kids were not a part of our life, while his brothers’ families were entrenched. I have distant cousins on my mom’s side whom I never met until my grandmother died and they came to the shiva.

Everyone talked about not knowing why they kept away from each other all these years -- both sides told the same story, with the other at fault. They laughed and agreed that the whole thing was not worth all those years of distance. They’ve spent every Thanksgiving and Passover together in the 18 years since.

Because my partner’s sister has not communicated with us since before my kids were born, they’re now growing up minus one aunt.

But while they may be down that one aunt, they’re surrounded by an incredible community of friends whom we -- like many others in our generation -- have defined as our “chosen family.”

It’s always something with family. But we’ve also managed to build a community of friends who love and understand us, regardless of what our “own flesh and blood” think. As Gen Xers, we’ve wandered far from our family homes, settled in alternative geographies, and made lives and careers and community for ourselves in places where we don’t have the safety of family networks.

In addition to the standard fare “you cut the turkey without me!” estrangement, our kids are growing up far from their “own flesh and blood” cousins, aunts, and uncles. Not only is there physical distance, but all of their first cousins happen to be a decade older because while we had our babies in line with the later parenting trend of our generation, our siblings did not.

The community that has surrounded us throughout their lives has played the role of family over the years, right down to the friend in the role of the uncle who’s always late. As a community, we resolved that issue years ago by all committing to telling him that everything starts an hour earlier. Too bad the Avalon family didn’t think of it -- but maybe that’s the point, maybe that kind of thing is easier to do with friends than family.

The friends in the community with whom we mark every holiday and life cycle event (except Thanksgiving, when we go camping in order to avoid the question of which grandparents get us for that holiday -- I guess you could say that we run away into the woods) are a “chosen family,” so prevalent among those of our generation. Choosing family is also common among marginalized people, which also defines many of those among our chosen kinfolk, and is how we became a family.

Last Passover, as my kids complained about having to sit through seder, I was struck by the idea that the kids of our community really are cousins. Like me with my Long Island cousins at my childhood holidays, they’re seeing each other year in and year out on special occasions. They’re not part of each other’s daily lives, even though they’re not as far apart as city and suburbs, like me and my cousins. They don’t go the same schools or camps or extracurricular programs, so they don’t see each other regularly.

But they’ve known each other their whole lives, and their parents have deep bonds with one another, having shared histories, decisions, joys, and traumas over decades. The kids share a communal language, culture, and values; and they share familial, sibling rivalry-like memories, that the same “cousin” is always the one to find the afikomen, the hidden piece of matzah, at Passover, every year --  year after year.


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