Defining Family

“What IS family, then?” The young man asked.
He’s getting out in less than a year, and we were talking about his plans for when he is “out” and life no longer has the physical limits of being “locked up”.
Going home is not the most attractive of his choices. There, old ways, old relationships, and old expectations for how he is to live and move ahead in life are all in play. He’s no longer a young teen, struggling with addictions and bad choices, and the labels that comes with the mistake he made at a tender age, the mistake that cost him his freedom. He’s earned a fresh start, and be able to move ahead without the baggage of prejudgment and assumptions. He’s not who he was, and he’s rightfully proud of that accomplishment.
Yes, being “inside” has given him many opportunities, and he had taken advantage of them, growing into a smart, sensitive, and thoughtful young man. A young man I’d be proud to call a son and live with me, become part of my family.
He’s looking ahead, and looking for options, possibilities for a new life, moving ahead with his life and seeking his dreams. At the core of that is being part of family.
So what IS family? Yes, the first, quick answer is the biological answer: the family I was born into. Yet, family can be and probably should be so much more.
Being a part of a family is a choice, a conscious, deliberate choice. We can do that in many ways.
When we marry, we intentionally create a new family, blended or mixed from both spouses biological families, or the families each partner is currently a part. We mix it up, sometimes adding kids and also adding in-laws, and close friends from both sides of the marriage. New rules and new expectations emerge, along with new dynamics.
New territory and new challenges await us as we navigate these fresh and often turbulent waters.
What is it that this young man needs, what I need, in a family?
We made a list: love, respect, a place in which to belong, be accepted, nurtured, cherished. A place to grow as well as a place that you come home to after a day out in the world, being challenged and jostled. A place that takes you for who you are. A place where there’s a chair and a table setting just for you at dinner.
“We each need to make our own family,” I said. “And the definition needs to fit what we need, creating a place where we grow to our full potential.”
My young friend has figured it out. He knows what a family is, the family he needs and wants, a place where he will flourish. Like all of us, he just needs permission to seek that out, and be good to himself, to find his very own family, creating his own happiness.
And, yes, its OK to want that, and its OK to make sure that having that good family is part of our lives, helping every one of us at achieve our dreams and live a productive, love filled life.

— Neal Lemery 9/30/2016


“How’s your family?” someone asked the other day.

“Oh, fine,” I replied. The standard response.

“No, really. How are they?” they asked, again, wanting me to be honest, to engage with them.

I shared some successes, a few challenges, feeling myself break into a smile as I talked about the people I loved, people I shared my life with, people who really mattered to me.

The conversation got into how I was really doing, at this point in my life. I’m really close to retirement, and busy with my music, my mentoring, and the usual busy schedule of late summer.

It felt good to connect with that person, and have someone really care about me, and where I was in life, and how things were really going. It was one of those times I was glad I lived in a small town, where you could run into people who really cared about you, who were good friends. I felt that warm, deep feeling inside of me, that feeling that people really cared about me, that I mattered, that what I do in my life really mattered.

As I walked down the street, I wondered, “Well, what do I mean when I mention my family?”

My lawyer brain first thinks of the dictionary definition of family. I look back at those in my life I’m related to biologically. Except for a few, they aren’t family now. We don’t have anything in common, except some DNA and some quirky personalities and mannerisms. Some of them share a last name with me. But, all that doesn’t add up to family for me. Not anymore.

I ran down the list of names, the names of my family, their faces popping into my head, more warm feelings filling my chest, my gut, being part of the smile across my face.

It struck me, hard, that who I feel are family to me aren’t related to me by blood. We don’t share the DNA, or any of the quirky family traits of personality, or habit, or behavior. We don’t share last names, or common ancestors.

No, my family doesn’t fit the Webster’s definition. But, they are my family.

They’ve come into my life through my marriage, my work, my life in this community. Some of them have lived in my house, and sat with me at the dinner table, as I’ve watched them grow up and move on, making something out of themselves.

And, some of them are people I just see a lot, sharing some laughs, telling stories, having fun spending some good times. They are the people you don’t need to worry about when you see them, worrying about what you will talk about, or what you will do. Like your favorite pair of worn jeans, they fit right and they’re comfortable, without any effort, without any work about being formal, or proper, or even polite.

They know who they are with me — family. And, when I try to explain to someone else how they are related to me, how they are family, the usual words of relationship and kinship just don’t work.

“Step son” or “former foster son” or “mentee” or “former co worker” or “wife’s former step daughter” or whatever I might use to “define” our relationship all are just words. And, they don’t work very well. They don’t describe who we are or how we are related. And, all those words aren’t what we are to each other, anyway.

And, some of the phrases just become nonsense to me, anyway. How can one be a “former” son? Once one, always one. English needs to develop some new words for who’s who in my family.

We’ve had a lot of shared experiences, a lot of fun, a lot of struggle sometimes, a lot of water under the bridge. More wrinkles, maybe less hair, bigger stomachs, all marks of aging. We all have a bit more gray in our hair (some, including me, a lot more than others!)

If we all got together for a big family portrait, you wouldn’t be able to tell that we’re related by looking at our faces, or how we dress, or how we smile, or sing. But, you would know us by our stories, by our affection for each other, for our shared experiences, and love for what we really are to each other. You would know us by that love that is deep in our hearts, that love we have for each other, that no one can define.

And, in all that, we are family.