Growing up like I did on three continents, my concept of an extended family was rather unique. My parents' peers were my "aunts" and "uncles" and I called them by that appellation. "Uncle George" was a prankster, and loved a good joke. He also always found an opportunity to challenge dad at a game of chess. "Aunt Irma" made us laugh and was fun to be around. She has great writing skills, and in her 80's, is currently writing her memoirs. As a kid, "Uncle John" was a fantastic uncle because his blood relatives had money, and so he built a vacation house. Since we were his "real" family, we benefitted from that beautiful home!
So given the previous paragraph, it might seem strange to you that I also really loved the fact that I felt connected to my blood relatives in a way that my other "overseas family" could never match. My mom and dad were from Iowa and Nebraska respectively, and in that part of the country, whom you were related to was a topic of lunch conversation. I was always fascinated by my blood cousin Charles' ability to point to someone and tell me how they were my third cousin once removed. How in the heck could he keep track of that?? Also, apparently my parents were related because a cousin of my dad's married a cousin of my mom. In the small towns of Iowa and Nebraska, those things still mattered.
I remember visiting my grandma in the very small town of Buffalo Center, Iowa, and loving the fact that I could go to the local mercantile, and when the merchant asked me (an obvious outsider) whom I was staying with, I would proudly say, "Grandma Jergens!". Somehow, I felt connected to that part of the world. I think this was an important aspect for me, a global nomad. It gave me roots, even if they barely kept me in place.
Does family really matter, especially extended family? Perhaps the real question should be, how does family matter?
In our individualistic North American culture, so many of us live really isolated lives. We each try to forge our own paths, make our own mistakes, see our way into the future. We shrug off help from our family, viewing it as an intrusion. Or perhaps in an effort not to appear smothering or overbearing, we back off from involvement in our relatives lives, thinking we are doing them a favor. I think the underlying reason is fear. Fear of love, fear of being hurt, fear of being rejected. It is easier to claim that we are doing them a favor by staying away, than risk the potential rejection by being involved.
What if we could maximize both aspects of "family"? Those who are blood relatives and those whom we are close to, who form our "real" family? I think both have their place. We need those who appreciate us for who we are the way we are. Sometimes our blood relatives can give us that; sometimes it is another type of family born from social or religious circles. Blood relatives give us the perspective of time and place. We were born in this generation because of who came before us. Those with whom we choose to associate, to call family, are necessary too because they provide us with a sense of security, love, and connection. When both those things occur in one "family", then we are truly blessed.
Taking all of the above and thinking of your future, what kind of "family" do you want to be? Do you want to be a connected family of where your blood relatives are your best friends? Is it still possible to make that happen? If not, can you begin to form your own "family" where the Cheers motto is in play: "where everyone knows your name"?
It takes intention and planning to be part of a family, above and beyond merely sharing genes. The most important aspect of being in a family is shared experiences. Find the time to share struggles with your loved ones, play games, tell stories. Over time, those experiences take on a life of their own, providing a safety net in times of trouble and a hammock in times of joy.