“I think she’s family,” my friend said.
I thought this was a strange statement because, even if I don’t know them very well, I know who is in my family. Who I am related to isn’t a mystery. My friend, though, was referring to a different kind of family.
It’s pretty common in the LGBTQ community to talk about people being your “family of choice.” This is a different group than your “family of origin”, which means the people you are related to by blood or adoption or marriage. What many of us just call “family” is actually your family of origin. Creating a family of choice often becomes necessary when your family of origin is toxic or rejects you. My friend was a pastor to a primarily LGBTQ congregation and family of choice becomes especially important when your family of origin disowns you for being gay.
We all need family, whether it’s the one we are born into or one that we choose.
I was fortunate to spend this past weekend with my siblings and cousins from my mom’s side and all of their families. The Olson gathering happened at a lake in upstate SC and people flew in from around the country. It was loud and messy and fun and intense, which is exactly what you would expect from us.
On Saturday night, as about 30 of us gathered for dinner, I said to my parents, “Grandpa would have loved seeing us all together here.” I was teary until my dad laughed and said, “Yes, he would have enjoyed it immensely from a distance.” It was loud and there were tired children and wet towels everywhere. It probably would have been safer to view it from a distance, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun or as lovely.
In her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” author Joan Didion writes:
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, and who is going to make amends.We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”
Families help us to remember. They love us through all of the versions of ourselves and still speak to us. They keep us humble and they celebrate our small victories. Families don’t let us forget our former selves, which helps us stay on nodding terms with earlier versions of who we were.
When we were all kids growing up together, I imagined that we would be together as a family more frequently than we have been able to be. Since we’re so spread out geographically, I’m very grateful for every gathering. I’m especially grateful for the ridiculous blessing that the people who are my family of origin are also my family of choice.