One Story of Family
Three houses on the beach, a long weekend in October, preparations are made a year in advance. Slowly they trickle into the small Oregon beach town, some fresh off of a flight from Colorado, some after the quick drive down from Portland. Car doors open and things spew out into one house or another, endless amounts of food and plenty of clothes for what promises to be a chilly weekend at Arch Cape. It has been four years since we were last here, and even then it wasnt all of us. Not everyone had been able to make the trip for the scattering of Grandmas ashes into the surf. In spirit though, everyone was there on that warm spring afternoon, to watch as sand and ashes became indistinguishable from one another. Just as Grandma is here in spirit now, to watch a new generation of Cottrells blossom as the grandbabies start to have babies of their own. There are forty-seven of us total. Forty-five have come to this reunion, babies in tow and cameras over the shoulder. We gather on the beach to relax, remember, and regroup. From Robert Van Dalen Cottrell and Florence Marie Bradshaw this family has sprung.
I grew up strongly aware of my family ties. Even with parents that divorced when I was two years old, a mom and a step dad that worked long hours at their small business, and family spread between the Northwest and Midwest, I have always felt that family was paramount. I have been blessed with an incredible family, one beyond the wildest dreams of most people whom I encounter. Not only am I lucky enough to have three parents instead of the standard two, I also enjoy an extended families that get along and enjoy each others company and play large roles in my life. Growing up I spent many weekends in Marysville with a favorite aunt, days with my grandparents in Issaquah helping my dementia-ridden grandmother, and summers always in Ohio with the other side of my clan, the Scotts.
With this huge network of family that supports each other and genuinely enjoys each others company, I had never considered what it would be like to have no family at all. In fact, the idea that there are people who have no connection to their family didnt occur to me until I began to notice how different my experiences often were from the experiences of my friends. As I become an adult and see more and more of the world, I find myself constantly amazed and confused by the disconnectedness much of my generation seems to feel towards their family, immediate and extended. So many of my peers seem to spend their maturing years getting as far from their family as possible, sometimes in terms of actual distance but more often and more importantly it seems they strive to separate themselves emotionally from all ties they feel to their family. As I watch friends distance themselves from family and at the same time find myself more and more drawn to my own family, I search for the difference in our experiences. I find myself wondering where the root of the issue lies what causes some people to have such indelible family ties while others seem to distance themselves as much as possible from any bonds they have with their blood family?
The more stories I hear of families split apart by arguments and separated by vast emotional spaces, the more I find myself unable to relate to the experiences of those around me. It has gotten to the point that I do not introduce the of my family, for fear that I will again receive that confused look which I know from experience will yield the question, "You mean your family actually gets along?" I will then have to explain that yes, while my family may not agree about everything all the time, they all look forward to reunions and genuinely enjoy time just spent together at the beach. It amazes me how surprised people are to hear that in a family of 47 people, there isnt one person that is estranged.
While my experience with an extended family that I adore might to some seem surprising enough, theres more. On a smaller and more immediately scale, there is my relationship with my parents. My mom and my step dad are two of my closest friends. As a child I always felt that it was the three of us as equals that inhabited our house, all sharing responsibilities and collaborating together as a family. Even at the age of 21 I made the choice to continue living in my parents house, simply because they are two of the best roommates that I could imagine right now. Between the three of us there is a profound understanding of, and respect for, each others hopes and dreams, however they may effect our everyday. We are there as support for each other in whatever capacity may be needed, be it an important life choice or just the need to sit and talk about a new idea. When I try explaining this to my peers I usually get the feeling that while they might respect my decision, they could never imagine making that same choice, based on their own family situations.
As I explored other peoples ideas about family and their ties to or lack of ties to family I found David Whitemyer. In his article entitled Family Ties, he talks about the stigma he experienced when he moved into the basement of his in-laws house with his wife and son. Whitemyer says, "There is a preconception that adult children rarely get along with their parents", a notion that I relate to as I often find myself trying to justify my living situation to people that I meet. Somehow I find myself always on the defensive, trying to avoid being looked at as what Whitemyer so eloquently calls a "slacker", in his terms what someone might call an adult living at home. I often find myself forgetting to tell people what the real issue isthat I enjoy living with my parents. In response to the negative impressions people have about living with family, Whitemyer says "The real joy of living near my in-laws is . . . well . . . the joy. We have fun together". While this is a sentiment that I can echo from my own experiences, it is not one that I find among many others with whom I talk.
Many of the same people who look askance at my description of family have incredible communities of close friends. I look at these communities and see that it is these friends who are providing for each other what my family provides for me. It is my experience that for many people in our society, the chosen structure of close friendships seems to have replaced the tradition familial bond. As families are separated by physical distance and emotional detachment, many people are turning to friends to fill the void left by a lack of family togetherness. Amy Cameron writes in her article entitled Kindred Spirits Instead of Kin, that
This idea of friendship as the new family is not an idea unique to Cameron or myself, but actually is pervading our society. As Cameron mentions in her essay, current pop culture reflects the societal trend of friendship as a replacement for close family relationships. The hit TV shows Friends and Seinfeld have been mirroring the state of friendship as the paramount relationship in many young peoples lives for some time, emphasizing the place of friendships in the modern lifestyle. With models like these, it is now socially acceptable to let go of the ties to a family that you do not get along with, and fill that space in your life instead with close friends.
As we see more mention of the chosen family taking the place that was once filled by blood relatives, I am left wondering. I wonder if the rise of friendship as the primary relationship in a peoples lives is a result of crumbling family ties, or if the reverse is true. Perhaps the detached state of many families is a result of people now feeling more free to chose who they want to devote their emotional ties to, instead of feeling stuck with their family commitments. Garold Murray explains the place friends have taken in his life as this: "With our friends, we are exploiting a bond that is more spiritual as opposed to organizational on a societal level" (qtd. in Cameron). This freedom to decide where we want to cultivate our emotional connections allows people to surround themselves by a supporting community, even if they have a family that they do not connect with.
If this is the case, and choice has indeed become the factor that causes many people to distance themselves from family, than the opposite should also be true. If we are allowed the choice to walk away from our bloodlines to find a community that truly supports us, why is it so odd that I happen to choose to be supported by those people with whom I share genes and have a common past? And what is it about my upbringing that makes me have such a strong tie to that motley crew that gathered on the Oregon Coast last month?
In searching for the definitive answer to my questionwhat makes some families so close and some families just not, I found myself with no answers, which is pretty much what I expected. However, I did find some interesting ideas about how family bonds are created and why they are more important to some people than to others. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, "Family routines and rituals are important to the health and well-being of today's families trying to meet the busy demands of juggling work and home" ("Family"). This idea that time spent together doing regular activities is central to the creation of a strong family unit is something that I can relate to my own life.
If I am looking for reasons why my family ties are so strong, then according to this study by the American Psychological Association, I can attribute some of my strong family ties to the presence of certain important rituals throughout my childhood. In the article Dr. Fiese continues on to say that "Rituals . . . involve symbolic communication and convey 'this is who we are' as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations. Also, there is often an emotional imprint where once the act is completed, the individual may replay it in memory to recapture some of the positive experience" ("Family"). The study mentions regular family dinners eaten together as particularly important in the fostering of a strong family, a specific instance that I can relate to my upbringing. Although my parents were busy running a small business throughout my childhood, the dinner table was always fundamental. We would sit at the table late after we had eaten, talking about our days and our ideas and our stresses. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of entire evenings spent at the dinner table, the three of us content with each others company. Perhaps these dinners together were more than just sustenance, perhaps they are one reason why my family ties are so strong.
So, in the future when I find myself talking about my family and what it means to me, and when I encounter someone who gives me that skeptical looks and asks if I actually enjoy evenings spent with my parents, what am I to think? Do I refer in my mind to the study by Dr. Fiese and pity them their apparent lack of childhood family rituals? Do I jump to my own defense for being 21 and living with my parents, justifying it by the cheap rent and the fact that they live out of town for 6 months out of the year? Or do I perhaps simply explain that the defining friendships in my life have often happened to be with members of my own family? Whether that makes them better or worse friendships is irrelevant and impossible to judge. I simply feel lucky to be able to call many of my family members friends, people that I seek out for advice and companionship. At the same time, I also feel lucky to be called "sister" by a dear friend who has chosen to distance herself from a family that is sometimes abusive and often uncaring. These ties are bigger than the labels given themblood family or not, what seems to be truly important is the simple act of reaching out for a community.
I was surprised in my reading to find that while my experience of a great, happy family might not be the norm, there is often a conscious effort to create some kind of surrogate family among those who have separated themselves from their blood ties. Jean-Claude Schubel explains it this way: "I get a lot of moral support and the feeling that I have some kind of family [from my friends]. You get very close and it makes you feel at home" (qtd. in Cameron). Instead of the despair I felt about the demise of the traditional family when I began researching the questions I had, I now actually appreciate the conscious choice that people are making to create supportive communities of their own. While I would not give up my family for anything, I know my experience is unusual, and I support those who purposefully create a community like the one I was lucky enough to be born into.
The weekend is slowly drawing to an end. Wet jeans that have been drying on the porch since Friday are collected, still wet, this time from the rain that has been falling instead of the surf. Saturday evening there is one last performance by Jay, the family cowboy poet. We gather around to hear his rhythmic stories of ranching, of being a daddy, of family reunions past. Sunday morning people linger over the farm breakfast, no one in a hurry for the ending to begin. Granddad goes for a final walk on the beach, a final chat with Grandma Foby down by the stream where her ashes no longer muddy the water. Car doors hang open as duffels and coolers and backpacks are thrown back in. Sand is shaken out of coats and sandals before they are loaded back into the trunk. I spend the long drive home reading for one of my classes, my flashlight a small stream amongst the headlights and freeway lamps of Interstate 5. As I often do on the freeway, I can feel the stories of all the people traveling around me. For each of those cars on the road with me, there is a story of family. Every person has a tale to tell about the trials and triumphs and tribulations of their childhood or of the family that is far away and that they miss dearly. And I have my story. The story of a rambunctious, caring, diverse group of people who gather now and again to revel in the joys of a winter storm at the beach and to reconnect with the ties that we share. This is my chosen community.
Cameron, Amy. "Kindred Spirits Instead of Kin." Macleans. Jan. 2003: 44. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO-Host. Whatcom Community College. 5 Nov. 2003.
"Family Routines and Rituals May Improve Family Relationships and Health, According to 50-Year Research Review." 8 Dec. 2002. APA Online. American Psychological Association.. 10 Nov. 2003 http://www.apa.org/releases/rituals2.html
Whitemyer, David. "Family Ties." 24 Nov. 2000. Jugglezine. 7 Nov. 2003 http://www.jugglezine.com/CDA/juggle/1,1516,47,00.html