Here is who came to our “Family” Thanksgiving dinner: me, my husband, my father, my step-mother, my father’s aunt, one of my father’s cousins and her husband, one of my father’s cousins, her husband and their two children, my step-mom’s sister, my step-mom’s sister’s son and daughter-in-law, my step-mom’s sister’s daughter-in-law and her two children.
Seventeen of us.
How are we related? How do we make up a family? It can’t be strictly blood. After all…I share DNA with my father and possibly (according to research) a little with his aunt & his cousins. But once you get into the realm of third and fourth cousins, and cousins “removed,” you begin to share just as much (or as little) DNA as you do with a stranger.
I do believe DNA is important. But I don’t believe it is the MOST important thing when it comes to defining a family.
My husband and I are a family. We have no DNA in common (or our marriage would be illegal). We share zero blood.
My step-mother has been my step-mother for over thirty years. But she is my family. She came with 8 brothers and sisters. I literally have dozens of step-cousins. We have a massive family reunion twice a year. I have family in multiple states that I could call if I needed anything. We share zero blood. But we are family.
When I graduated from college, I moved to Pennsylvania to go to grad school. I knew no one. I did not know one single person when I moved there. It took a few weeks and the three other people in my grad program and I became a unit: we ate lunch and dinner together, we went out together, we went to each other’s apartments. We became, in our own words, a family.
Then I joined a church (or: How My One Time Drunk Adventure Led Me to the Ministry!). Suddenly, there were dozens of families that treated me like one of their own. I had invitations to Sunday family suppers – birthday parties – days on the boat on the rivers – people who brought me soup and 7-Up when I was sick and on my own. They became, as is so popular in church language, my church family.
Then I moved to Ohio, again to attend graduate school. I didn’t know anyone in Ohio, either. I made friends in class – again, many of us in the same program at the same time. We had meals together, served people together, went to churches and movies and parties together. We helped each other when we were sick – when there was a massive snow storm and people were stuck places – when there were accidents or tragedies. We became a family.
Then there was my small group in Ohio: a dozen or so twenty-somethings (one married couple amongst us) who got together at least once a week. We went to church together – went out to eat afterwards together – talked on the phone and in parking lots and over coffee for hours. We cried at each other’s weddings and are now celebrating at the births of each other’s children – even though we are now scattered over the Midwest. They are my family.
Today, my husband and I live about 45 minutes from each of our parents (2 mothers, 1 father and 1 step-mother between us). We live about 45 minutes from our (combined) four aunts, three uncles, and dozens of cousins. We live 45 minutes from one brother and his two daughters. We live 6 hours north of one brother, his wife and their daughter. We live 6 hours south of one brother, his wife and their 1 1/2 daughters. Of those people, I share DNA – blood – with my mother, my father, my brother, two aunts, one uncle, two cousins, and possibly 1 1/2 nieces. Keith shares blood with the rest of them. Except that his aunt is really his uncle’s second wife and most of his “cousins” aren’t blood relatives at all.
Then there’s our small group – the people that four years ago we committed to “do life” with. It’s true we found out one girl is my third cousin (we think – her paternal grandmother and my maternal grandmother were first cousins). But the rest of us – 14 adults and oodles of children – not related. Not. At. All. But we are a family. When one woman was broadsided by a dump truck going 55 MPH – we were the ones who helped them. When grandparents have died – we have gone to the funerals and held hands and cried. When there have been infertility issues – we are the ones who pray and hold hands and take meals. When there are job crises or life crises, we are there for each other. We see these people multiple times each week – more often than we see our relatives. And we are family.
I worked in theatre for many years, and it always amuses me to attend church wedding receptions where they play that song, “We Are Family,” because I know it’s an anthem in the gay community. Because it represents what they feel, but aren’t really. Family.
Family isn’t strictly made up of DNA.
Sure, some families are made stronger and brighter and better because of DNA.
Some just suck harder because you feel trapped by your DNA.
But families are made by love. Otherwise, how do you explain the bond between a husband and a wife? Husbands and wives – parents – do not share any DNA or any blood. And I love my husband more than anyone else on this earth.
That is family.
Family is built through committment to one another – through good times – through bad times – through the doing of life together.
Oh, and those multiple family reunions my family has every year? Every year they get bigger and better, because people see our family and want to be a part of it. And we let them.
Because we understand that family isn’t defined by DNA. It’s defined by love.