Kinship is a slippery thing.
One night during dinner, our son asked whether his teenage step-cousins once removed were in our family, and to my dismay my husband responded “Not really,” while I firmly stated “Yes.”
I had no doubt that my teenage step-cousins were my relatives, albeit by marriage, since they are the granddaughters of my grandmother’s third husband’s daughter Irene. But once the scrutiny of kin began, the quicksand of questions kept pulling me deeper. I began to wonder about my hodge-podge of step- and half-relatives, thousands of miles away. Did their removals by marriage and divided ancestry make them somehow less valid?
To me, family is an abstract. Family can consist of friends you’ve had since you were young, or people who’ve taken you in, such as my Aunt Irene, whom I have always called “Reen.” I spent all my Christmas, Easter and summer vacations in her sprawling North County San Diego home, until I went to live with her when I was twelve. Technically, she is my mother’s step-sister, and there’s not a drop of blood between us, but we finish each other’s sentences, get each other’s jokes, and know how to heal each other’s wounds.
What I remember most about going to stay with Reen when I was a child is her unwavering devotion to my happiness. I experienced this in the form of Jack-in-the-Box French fries dipped in chocolate shakes, alfalfa sprouts growing on the kitchen counter, and long drives out to avocado orchards, where we would stop and “just grab a few.” I felt it all those times we’d watch old Shirley Temple movies in her king size bed when my uncle was away on business, opening thean immense box of crayons she gave me forat Christmas, and in her passionate whisper when it was time to say good-bye: “A bushel and a peck, and a hug around the neck.”
Every May, my husband and I and our two children drive down to Southern Colorado for his family’s annual Memorial Day celebration. His father and uncle and all of their children, children’s spouses and grandchildren also make the pilgrimage to a centuries-old cemetery set into a plateau of East Spanish Peak, along the South Santa Clara Creek. On the very land where my husband’s father was born, they break out the work gloves, unload a mower off someone’s trailer, and proceed to clean the graves of all their ancestors.
Picture a pristine mountain mesa and a soccer-field-sized patch of grass covered in granite headstones, dozens of which are inscribed with our last name, bits of semi-destroyed pink and purple plastic flowers strewn about. The sign above the white metal gate reads Thomas Rogers Cemetery, 1895. Craggy peaks rise in the background, and multiple Ford trucks and SUV’s are parked in the grassy meadow nearby. After the mowing and weeding around the graves is done, we all rest in our folding chairs and eat ham sandwiches and home-made chocolate chip cookies.
Over time, I’ve come to feel almost accepted at this ritual, as my husband’s relatives always show genuine interest in how things are going, and toss out an extra pair of gloves for me to use. I get misty-eyed each time our own Ford starts up the ten-mile deeply rutted road to the top. I long to be a part of such strong lineage, and I feel gratitude as wide as the Sangre de Christos that our children have this powerful tradition. But no matter how many irresistible Read offspring I have borne, I know that I will never truly belong here, simply because I can’t relate.
My husband comes from a certain stock, like cattle, and no one outside the bloodline can ever really be considered part of the clique. It’s exclusive, and particular. It’s about growing your own food, cooking from scratch, and tending your acreage into your 80’s. It’s not that they won’t accept non-blood relatives into the fold, on the contrary, the more time passes, the more I am treated with the same level of warmth as any of them. But when the conversation turns to putting up raspberries and castrating lambs, this city girl just doesn’t fit in.
On the drive down to the cemetery last year, I learned that my half-sister Linda, whom my mother gave up for adoption at birth years before I was born, and who I only found out about when I was 32, was concerned because her “sister” Penny (the woman my sister grew up with in her adoptive parents’ home) was in the hospital.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” our son asked after I gasped at a text on my phone.
“My sister’s sister is in the hospital.”
Your sister’s sister? That’s your sister!” he insisted.
“Hmm. I’m not sure…Maybe,” I said, as my husband oh-so-faintly shook his head.
“Definitely,” our son said, and I envied his certainty.
Merriam-Webster defines family as a group of people living under one roof, and/or peoples deriving from a common ancestry, and also a group of things related by common characteristics, such as “related plants or animals forming a category ranking above a genus and below an order,” or “a unit of a crime syndicate (as the Mafia).” Now we’re talking.
When I mentioned to my sister Linda that I’d been thinking a lot about family, she kind of laughed, in her serious way, and said, “I grew up with Penny, and I’ve known her forty more years than I’ve known you. But for whatever reason, I feel so much closer to you.”
I knew exactly what she was talking about. Blood has an inexplicable pull. What she and I both have found is that even though we grew up a thousand miles and seventeen years apart, having shared genes binds us with an intimacy that is as comforting as it is comfortable.
Late last summer, I called Reen’s house and her daughter answered. It seemed that my aunt, who always tells everyone I’m her third child, had a bad case of pneumonia, and thinking she might die, had called her kids and asked them to come be with her. I was not called, I realized, because as much as I want to feel in my heart that I am her child, and as much as she loves to tell me that I am, I’m not. I am simply the child of her step-sister, who wasn’t fit to raise me and so let me go live with my step-aunt, who was.
In September, I decided to take our two kids out to see Reen for her 85th birthday. It was important that I remind her, and myself, that I am only a plane ride away from her condominium complex in the desert. With the spiky San Jacinto range rising up purple in the early evening, I called her from the car and told her we were getting close. She squealed excitedly.
“I left your name at the gate with the guard. I told him you were my daughter.”
And there at the stoplight on Highway 111, relief like a warm bath flooded over me. Even though it was a lie, it was a lie that made me feel a part of something long and wide. And it gave me the confidence to confront her.
“If you feel that way, then next time you think you’re dying, do me a favor and call me.”
There was an awkward silence. “Oh, honey, I was so sick. I wasn’t in my right mind.”
I reassured her that I understood. And I do understand. I understand that there are limitations to our relationship, because no amount of telekinetic connection will ever add up to the inextricability of blood. Yes, it will come close. But in the end, it is not the same. I still believe that family is an abstract. But I’ve also realized that there is something sacred and indelible about the consanguine bond.
In late December, we boarded a plane to Ft. Worth and went to visit my sister Linda, her husband, their two sons and their four children. We were together all weekend; we stayed at a posh hotel on New Years’ Eve, took the kids to see Shrek on Ice, and toasted each other’s success at midnight. On New Years’ Day, we all dug in to my brother-in-law’s black-eyed pea cornbread and sat around watching football. There was constant laughter and intense conversations about ancestry and politics and careers. There was a physical comfort, a tangible ease that comes from the sameness of genes. But there were moments, riding in the backseat of a minivan along unknown city streets, where I felt not quite part of the conversation. There were silent, unseen mysteries in the air, gaps in familiarity I would sense, like a gopher poking her nose out of a hole.
My husband, two kids and I live in a two-story log-sided house on three forested acres in a suburb west of Denver. Most nights, we gather around our pine table and eat warm, filling meals, sometimes spotting a deer or fox out the window. We hike, canoe, ski and snowshoe together, and together we work, learn, listen, and laugh. We roast marshmallows in the summer and sled down the driveway in the winter, plant seeds in the spring and carve pumpkins in the fall. And when there are problems, we talk or fight them out, until there is peace between us.
In March, I flew out to Palm Springs again. This time, it was to be by Reen’s side while she underwent gall bladder surgery. Her own blood-related children couldn’t make it, but I was able to be there to take the bobby pins out of her wig, feed her slivers of ice, and repeat the same adage she used to say to me when I was a child:
“A bushel and a peck, and a hug around the neck.”
Candace Kearns Read is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA in Creative Writing, the author of a screenwriting handbook, and her recently completed novel – “The Rope Swing” – is currently being shopped around by her agent. She blogs at lawomantologlady.wordpress.com and teaches creative writing for Antioch University Midwest.