Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about family. My niece is making a move back from California to Oregon, so she and her three children are staying with me, while she looks for an apartment and job. It’s been an interesting experience. Because my half-sister is much older than I am, my niece and I are actually close to the same age. I hadn’t seen her in over a decade. In fact, it’s been long enough that I had never met her two teenaged daughters and eight year old son. Friends told me I was crazy to allow strangers into my home and to be careful, because it’s not normal for someone you haven’t seen for over a decade to show up out of the blue, expecting you to open your home to four people you barely know, but I didn’t listen. I won’t lie, I was a little apprehensive before they got here, but we got along so well as kids, I decided to take the risk.
As it turns out, it’s been interesting getting (re)acquainted and it’s so funny seeing these little people who have my eyes. We have some strong genes in my grandfather’s line that include big blue eyes with dark lashes. It makes me think about my dad and his dad and the line of eyes before them. It’s also made me think a lot about hospitality, family and the ancestors.
In my circle, many of us follow paths that call for the veneration of spiritual ancestors and ancestors of place and blood. These ancestors always seem like this vague and general, but somehow comfortable connection. No doubt I wouldn’t have been BFFs with every one, but distance makes it easier to dismiss their foibles as a product of the shadowy past.
But what about the closer, more recent ancestors? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.
As an adult, I’ve never really placed that much important on biological family. My parents and most of my grandparents were lovely people. I have a few cousins who are great. And then there is the redneck section of the family tree, who apparently take after my paternal grandmother. She was a bigot and one of the most bitter, unpleasant people I have ever met. While most grandmothers dote on their grandchildren, mine told me my eyes were just like my father’s – so cold I could stare a hole through a brick wall. She used the N-word to describe little girl scouts, who knocked at her door to sell cookies. And, for thirty years, she referred to my German mother (who like all immigrants was here to either to “steal our men or take our jobs”) as “The Foreigner.” She had the idea that everyone else lived on the sunny side of the street, while she was beleaguered with a big, eternal and immovable rain cloud stationed directly over her head.
What this taught me is that some people win the family lottery, others have to make their own family. And how lucky for us! We get to pick! And so, my philosophy has been that if I met you on the street and wouldn’t be drawn to you, there’s no need for us to become uncomfortably intertwined only because we share a gene pool. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to create a really great soul family for myself. It includes a smattering of nieces, nephews and cousins (some real, some adopted), decades long friendships and some newer ones. They come from many ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, but what all have in common is that they are part of my soulpod. We celebrate each other’s victories, we mourn each other’s losses, we love each other and help each other through the good and the bad. They know I have my kooky, hippie dippy, tree hugging, wild soul, gypsy eccentricities, and they don’t care. They also know that I will give them hospitality any time they need food or drink or place to stay or even just a sympathetic ear; and I know they would do the same for me. If that isn’t family, I don’t know what is.
But that still leaves me with the conundrum around ancestors of blood. How does one relate to an ancestor like my grandmother, who is close enough in time that we remember them – – and not very fondly? How do we come to terms with the not so pretty things some of our ancestors did? The best I can figure is that we treat them like the other negative experiences in our lives. We treat them as challenges that have shaped who we are. Would I have learned compassion without a grandmother who was mean to me for no reason other than that she hated my mother and was disappointed with my father for marrying her? Would I have as many friends of different ethnicities, if I hadn’t seen how unkind people can be for no reason other than skin color? Would I value my self-created family as much, if I hadn’t had to deal with people like her? Would I be who I am without having known her?
The truth is, I like who I am and I absolutely love my soulpod. My grandmother and some of my other more dubious relations are a part of what shaped my character, just as the line of ancestors of all kinds before them influenced and shaped the people and world around them. They might have sometimes done so from within a negative space, but they shaped it as surely as any other experiences and relationships we have in our lives, and so I give thanks for their teaching, their wisdom, their gifts.