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Elizabeth Slade: Mine and yours - defining ‘family’

Home during a work day, I am lying on the couch with my cat staked out in the curve of my aching body. She is nursing me through my annual migraine, where I can’t move without pain radiating from my hair follicles to my toenails. Luckily, I have a family to care for me when I fall this hard.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what makes a family, pondering the biology, the chemistry, the science of family as well as the social science of it. My reflections led to some research on the question, beginning with the dictionary. There are eight definitions of family in Webster’s Dictionary, ranging from a group of people living under one roof, to common ancestry, to people with common convictions. It gets really fun when it turns off into a group of soils with similar chemical properties and a unit of a crime syndicate. Contemplating my family as dirt or the mafia helped take the edge off when the headache came.

The migraine day opened with me in a heap on the aforementioned couch in the living room, where I could hear my teenager stumbling about in an effort to make it to the high school without being marked tardy.

“You OK in there?” he calls, knowing last night I was in pain. When I moan out a “No” I hear him in the door.

“Do you need anything?” I crack open my eyelids, despite the bright light pouring in the windows, knowing that seeing his face will help in some small way, and it does.

I hear the door chimes ring as he leaves and soon I can hear my spouse in the kitchen working on breakfast and lunch for the younger two. Magically a hot cup of caffeinated tea appears with an English muffin and my head is being lightly stroked by the co-chair of my clan. The throbbing doesn’t diminish the pleasure of this small act of kindness, the time stolen from her tight schedule on a school day.

Before they leave for school my middle one brings me a tall glass of water and carefully lays an ice pack across my broken head as though balancing the last rock on a cairn, and my younger comes and sits across me with her legs stretched out. I risk another peek and her face is pink and radiant. I lap in the sight of her before she is gone and my eyes are forced to close again.

This is my family. The group of people I am bound to, who watch over me when I am tangled, who believe completely in my ability to weather what comes, and who make it more bearable, more joyful, more meaningful. Though lacking shared ancestry, they are my varied soil samples, my earth, living under one roof.

In her definition, author Jane Howard expands the thinking on family out a layer. “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” Certainly the big headache brought that to the foreground.

Left alone in the quiet house, save the cats on nursing duty, I am free to moan at will. At each one of these moments there is a response. A friend sends a text asking if I’m better and offers to bring his big carpentry hands over to rub my neck and shoulders. My boss calls. “Oh dear, you don’t sound good. What do you need?” I need him to manage a few things and he says he will. The next-door neighbor knocks on the door, concerned to see my car in the driveway on a work day. My good friend comes, opens the bottle of my migraine medicine, puts one in my hand and gives me water. She adjusts the refreshed icepack on my head and reads me poems. This is my network. The group of people who notice me stumbling and are not afraid that I won’t get back up again. My people, my tribe, whatever I call them, I need them.

Expanding out one circle more, the Buddha’s idea is this: “A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another.” That puts us as family with all beings, holding us responsible to care for and bring ice packs to anyone in need.

At the change of shift for the feline nursing staff I have a moment alone in the living room. Clouds have arrived and the sunny day is tempered enough that my eyes can be safely open. I am soaking in the view of emerging spring outside when a bird lands on the deck rail and our eyes meet. Time stops and I am lost in connection with this messenger, this small being. Without thought, without words, our minds come in contact. And when I have fully digested the meaning it flies away.

This may be the largest view of family, and one not often considered — but one available to us just the same. It brings me to my favored Webster definition of family, number seven: “a set of curves or surfaces whose equations differ only in parameters.” There is a unifying simplicity in this view that holds all the families I know and can imagine — the idea that we are related in a geometric sense, through proximity, like a Kandinsky painting, and that in the end it adds up- our equation balances.

With this we launch the first column devoted to topics and issues as they relate to family. I’d love to hear from you, reader. What is your idea of family? What shape and size are you? What are your parameters? What do you hope to read about on these pages that will in some way reflect your version of family?

Elizabeth Slade, author of the novel “Rest Stops,” lives in Leeds with her spouse and three children. She can be reached at egslade@newview.com.co.

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