Saturday, October 15, 2011

Family Values

I had a friend who used to say to me, "You and me, we're family. Whatever happens, we'll always be family."

Back then, I thought I knew what "family" meant; that peculiar little word was a stand-in for all kinds of ideas, including "comfort," "security," "permanence," and especially "love." Not surprisingly, that relationship went sour, and unlike "real" family, who generally remain family forever whether you like it or not, this person has evaporated into the ether, and it's unlikely we'll ever meet again.

At roughly the same time the relationship with my family-facsimile was reaching its conclusion, a strange new, actual family member materialized from virtually nowhere. Turns out that, in addition to having a real-life younger brother, I also have a real-life older sister.

Our father, who art in heaven (or wherever you go when you die)

My mother was 20 and my father was 50 when I was born. The man who supplied half of my DNA had been married once before to a much younger woman, and that marriage produced a first daughter. She grew up in Southern California, not far from where I spent a good chunk of my childhood. She is the same age as my own mother.

We met in a fated fashion literally days before my move to Paris. For the last 20 years, we'd been living within 10 miles of each other, she in Marin county, where she and her husband, both psychologists, cohabitate with an old dog in a beautifully manicured home, and I in San Francisco, in a well-worn but lovable old Western Addition apartment shared with a dog and human partner.

Separated by decades and oceans, but sisters just the same.

After a brief email exchange followed by a phone call, then a face-to-face meeting, we packed in as much socializing and getting-to-know-each-othering as possible in the span of a few days, which was all I had to spare before cramming everything into a giant "to-go" container and setting off on our overseas adventure. Our time together was spent poring over old photos and artwork (our father was a painter), comparing personal histories, staring at each other's faces searching for resemblances, and trying to define the idea of "family" within the context of our newly formed shared experience.

Portrait of an artist as a young man

My sister and her husband came to Paris last week. It had been 15 years since their last visit here, and my sense was that they wanted to fall under the City of Light's fabled romantic spell a deux. Their temporary home was a fifth-floor walk-up in the thick of the Marais. Over seven days we shared several meals together, in restaurants and at our home in the dingy northwest of Paris, where we attempted to fortify our long-distance connection over Indian and Ethiopian food, and seal it tightly for safekeeping.

Yes, I dragged everyone to Chettinadu for my beloved thali

This relationship, like so many others that have been formed and broken over the years, feels tentative. Will our freshly soldered bond remain intact simply because we share some DNA and a mutual love of art and travel? Is our connection not susceptible to the same sorts of fissures, fractures, and even deaths that the standard-issue friendships are prone to?

What does "family" mean to you, and who falls under that sheltered definition?


  1. What a *wonderful* story, Aurelia! I loved learning more about YOU through this, too. I'm so glad that not only have you met your sister, but that she was able to come to Paris so that you could continue to get to know one another. Thank you for sharing photos of your father as well -- really nice to see this aspect of your life.

    You know, I have had many people through the years who feel like family in addition to an actual family. I have also created three distinct families of my own. Instead of feeling that family is as solid as a rock, never to be moved, I have felt that my family are the friends and loved ones that I have needed most and that they have needed most, too, at that particular time. Yeah, it is an ephemeral way to look at it, but then I also consider that I am part of the greater human family, too, so in that sense, everybody is family. It's ALL tentative, is how I feel. Things change. People change, even with the genetic relationships we call "family." I'm personally just happy that wherever I have gone, there have been people who are committed to my well being, as I am to theirs, and that love flows between us! (I'm such a hippie, lol. ;-) )

    Thanks for a wonderful read & for turning on my brain to think about what family means to me!

  2. Karin, I love your concept/experience of family being a fluid, sometimes-ephemeral thing, like one of those buddhist sand mandalas that take weeks to create before being unceremoniously swept up in a pile of colorful dust. It's a good metaphor for life, if looked at from that same sort of eastern-philosophy/religious perspective that suggests nothing is permanent, all is temporary, live (and love) like it's your last moment. Thank you for sharing and giving some delicious food for thought!

  3. Aurelia, I think it's wonderful that you have an older sister. It's just fun to say, if nothing more. I think you will stay in contact with her now, because that's who you are.
    While driving the other day, the kids were going through their list of cousins (on my side) and mentioned all the cousins from oldest to youngest, but mingled in the names of my childhood friends' children as well. Knowing that one friend is sick with cancer and is leaving behind her own two girls, it's good to know that her children are considered family by my kids. There's no way I'll ever NOT be involved with them at some level.
    I recently got reconnected with my dad's side of the family (reticent Norwegians) and we had a party for my 86 yr old uncle and it was a blast! Why hadn't we done that sooner?
    Family for me is paying attention do those you care about, regardless of their blood relation.

  4. Beth, you are such an amazing storyteller. And a wonderful mother, sister, daughter, wife, and--I know this from personal experience--a wonderful friend. I feel grateful to be able to include you in my loose definition of family, and love knowing that your kids' lives will always be cushioned by so many loving connections--including those of reticent 86-year-old Norwegians.

    Let's all have a hug, now, shall we?!

  5. ...just wrote a huge note regarding both your most recent entries and of course it got deleted. Roughly summarized, I enjoyed reading both tremendously - you're a fantastic writer and the content of course was so relevant (it would've been interesting even if you were a stranger whose book i picked up). I have more questions now - about your father, if your trip to india was cancelled (hopefully not)... i need to get skype going.

  6. Hi, Sarah!

    I hate when that auto-delete thing happens. For me, its usually at the exact moment I say to myself, "you know, you ought to copy this text right now, in case the computer crashes." Waa.

    Thank you for saying nice things about my writing. Not to get all whiney, but I always feel like my writing sucks, no matter the subject or style, but a writer whose work I value once said that if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to be sort of fearless about putting it out there. Every time I hit the "post" button or the send something off to an editor, I feel a little queasy. I wish that would simmer down a bit with age, but it doesn't.

    Yes: Get skype going, please! And to answer your question about India, it's looking like I have little to no chance of getting the visa before my plane leaves Monday night, though I did send a beggary sort of plea to the authorities, and I did pray to Ganesh, too. So we'll see.

    Now, of course, I can't help the dreaded "what if" scenarios from knocking at my mind's door: What if, after all this to-do to get myself to India, the plane crashes somewhere over the Himalaya?

    It's fun being me sometimes :0)

  7. I want an older sister. I want a sister period. I am crying over here. I love this. You write beautifully.

  8. Feather/ Thank you! I always wanted a sister, too. Actually, I wanted a gaggle of sisters--a whole Brady Bunch-style sibling gang, actually. Well, it didn't turn out that way, but I'm not complaining. Luckily, some of us get "sisters" that aren't necessarily shared blood, but still shared bonds. I'm glad to have you in my broader sister-circle!


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