family matters

Family matters. Every day. In big and small ways. Most of the time, it goes unrecognized but it should never be taken for granted.

I was young — too young! when I married into a large, boisterous family. Everyone lived close — too close! Within ten miles were my parent-in-laws, eight sibling-in-laws, their spouses and, eventually, seventeen nieces and nephews. Dozens more extended family lived within a half hour.

I came from a small family, by comparison. Three sisters. A handful of aunts and uncles. I didn’t see much of my cousins. Relationships were often strained among adults on both sides. There were few expectations for interactions and almost no traditions around family life, nuclear or extended. It was rather lonely, by comparison.

Entering my husband’s family meant a dramatic shift in my thinking and behavior. There was a steady schedule of family events, along with expectations to show up, bring something, and help out. This was a family in action and deed. Nobody moved homes alone, gardened alone, shopped alone, played alone, birthed or raised children alone. Babysitters were often as close as the backyard, in exchange for the same.

A huge box of baby things traveled from home to home — burp pads and receiving blankets, onesies and sleepers, delicate dresses or tiny sweater vests. Among the sweetest tasks of family life was washing the contents fresh with Woolite and Downy to pass along in time for the next newborn. Bag after bag of “handy downs” followed — clothing, toys, athletic gear, shoes and boots — helping keep the budget in check as the chids grew through to junior high.

Family time was Fourths of July at camp, Christmas Eves at the farm and everything in between. It was birthdays and anniversaries. Baptisms and first communions. School plays, recitals, and graduations. Helping to clean, organize, or coordinate. Cheering on the athletes and joining in family skates. Burgers and beer, watermelon and kickball, and playing ’til dark. Canning gallons of pickles, dilly beans and spaghetti sauce. Freezing bushels of corn. Wallpapering to the match. Litter-mate pups. Long days making hay. Meals on wheels. Garage sales. Meetings and fundraisers, at school and at church. Coffee and card games. Wine, cheese and weddings. Funerals and miles of dirty dishes in their wake.

These are the bricks and mortar, so to speak, of building an extended family. Families aren’t built in a day. It takes the time that it takes. And it wasn’t all peaches and cream. “Everyone” was in my business “all” of the time! (And I, no doubt, was in theirs.) There were strained relationships here, too. But because everyone lived so close, we had to figure it out. Or fake it until we did. Sometimes it seemed too much. Sometimes showing up was the last thing I wanted to do. Looking back, I can see how important it was.

It was at least ten years into our marriage before I found my place and became comfortable in the family. It wasn’t about them so much as it was about me. I needed to grow up. I needed to get over myself. It didn’t matter much what I thought — nor how sure I was of my wisdom and knowledge! It mattered what I did. Show up, bring something, and help out.

I was stretching and growing into adulthood as I was learning to parent and be a life partner. I was insecure, immature, and ill-equipped. It was sometimes painful, for me and them. Yet they were there for me, whenever I needed them to be. And I’ve no doubt their positive “peer pressure” helped to keep our marriage together: we weren’t going to be the first in this family to divorce! Sometimes living too close is a saving grace.

At my sister-in-law’s 50th birthday party earlier this week, a dirty little secret was revealed. One of the girls had suggested the celebration be contained to the sisters. Just the six of them. “Oh, no!” my mother-in-law insisted, “Those others are there for you whenever you need them. You’re not leaving them out!” She’s a tiny but fiesty octogenarian and matriarch. She still has the last word.

She’s right, of course, but it’s a well worn, two-way street. We are there for each other. Because at the end of the day, we don’t have to be best friends. Our chids don’t have to be best friends. We don’t need to share all of our secrets, or too many of them. We don’t need to take vacations together. We don’t even need to share a faith, although it’s extra sweet when we do. When push comes to shove, we just need to show up, bring something, and help out. The rest takes care of itself.

As for that party, I brought the bubbly: Showing up. Helping out. ;=)

~Rene Morley

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