One shoe off

November 5, 2007

Family tree (Warning: LONG and sappy).

Filed under: family values — Liz @ 11:44 pm

So, tell me about your family? How close does your family match up to the “real” family that gets printed in the illustrations in Sunday School curriculum, or on the cover of Focus on the Family magazine, or by the Republican party?

(As a side note: ever do a genogram? Want a good way to kill a few hours and learn more about yourself and your family than you ever thought possible … or even desirable? Find someone who knows what they’re doing to tell you how to do it and to look at it with you. Trust me. And bring tissues).

My family: two still married, straight [white] {Protestant} parents. Two children. Sound pretty o.k.?
Both parents have always worked. (uh-oh) For a significant period of time, my mom made more than my dad did, worked more hours than he did, and he was my primary caretaker. (slippery slope … must … stop … sliding). But still, two parents, two kids. Well, except for when Leonardo moved in. Leonardo was a seminarian who was one of my dad’s students after we moved overseas. Leonardo started coming over for lunch every day to tutor my dad in Spanish and help him plan his lessons, grade papers, etc. Eventually, Leonardo moved into the spare bedroom. He lived with us, off and on, for about 10 years. Leonardo made cookies with me when I was young, he read “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” to me in Spanish before I ever read it in English. He was my baby sister’s favorite person, the only adult she let pick her up besides my parents (She was a fussy kid and didn’t really like anyone besides my mom. She tolerated my dad. But when Leonardo came … she ADORED him) So. Two parents, two kids, and the man who lives in the spare room who’s there for the teeth-losing and the escaped hamster-chasing and the first bikes and the birthday cakes. Still, an o.k. family, right?

Of course, then there’s the matter of the aunts and uncles. When my family moved overseas in 1983 we left behind a host of aunts, uncles and cousins who would never be much more than strangers to my sister and me. But, we moved into a host of missionaries who insisted we call them “Aunt ___ and Uncle ___”. We had Thanksgiving all together every year, a huge extended “family” of about 100 people. “Aunts” “Uncles” and “Cousins” who knew more about us than our own relatives did. They watched each others’ kids when parents got sick or went out of town or took a weekend off to celebrate their anniversary. We gathered with smaller groups of Aunts and Uncles for Christmas dinner. Aunts or Uncles who were in the country with no spouses or children of their own might come over and spend the night Christmas Eve and open presents with us around the tree on Christmas morning. Aunts and Uncles took turns teaching each others’ kids to drive. Aunts and Uncles still, years down the road, years past retirement, years after living overseas, drive across the U.S. to attend each others’ kids’ weddings. Or each others’ funerals.

O.k. O.k. Two parents. Two children. Man in the spare room. A substitute extended family. We’re still close enough, right?

Well, except for cousin K. (withholding the name here for privacy purposes). She was a blood relative — an actual child of my mom’s actual sister. K. fell into some trouble in her Southern California hometown. She was about 15, having a terrible time, and so her parents in a final attempt to “straighten her out” sent her to live overseas with us. My parents, parents of two young children (I was 9, my sister was 5), suddenly also became parents of an unhappy rebellious teenage girl. And I, the oldest, suddenly became the middle child. I was none too pleased. She stayed with us for several months. She made friends, but she missed California. My parents parented her the best they knew how — with lots of love and encouragement, but also firmness and an insistence that she start respecting herself. A tall order, and one it would take her several years to fill. When she left, even though I’d despised the intrusion, I missed her and used to write her letters every so often. She was family, after all.

So … two parents, two children, man-in-spare-room, surrogate aunts and uncles, wayward cousin.

Oh, I forgot to mention Jeremy. Jeremy was one of the “cousins.” He lived with us for the last part of his sophomore year in high school. His parents — my “aunt” and “uncle,” of course — had to go back to the U.S. before the end of the school year. So I had an older brother for about five months. And then there was Mark. Mark was a med student from the U.S. who came overseas to spend a semester working at the Baptist Hospital. He lived with us, in our other spare room (it was a house with lots of spare rooms, rooms that never seemed to stay “spare” very long). Oh, and Joel. Joel was another one of the “cousins,” but he was more like a little brother. He and his family lived way out in the country. A couple times a year we’d invite Joel to come stay with us in the Big City, show him the sites, teach him how to talk to girls, that kind of thing. And a couple of times a year we’d go out to his place. He’d show us the sites, take us to see the cows, teach us to crank the generator. That kind of thing. Oh, and then there’s Malena, the national female kickboxing champion. After I left and came back to the U.S. for college, Malena moved in for a little while. She played with the dog, helped plan my sister’s 14th birthday and broke my parents’ hearts when she ran off with a U.S. mission volunteer who’d come down for an evangelistic crusade. A U.S. mission volunteer who happened to be married with several children.

O.K. I guess allowances must be made for overseas living, after all. Surely we straightened up once we got back to the States. And we did. Two parents. Two kids, one in college, one in high school. Then, two parents, two kids, one working who comes to dinner every Sunday, one in high school and dating. Dating, of course, boys who seemed to be attracted almost as much to the family as they were to her. Boys who became fixtures at every meal, who always came over Thanksgiving and Christmas as soon as they could get away from their families. Boys who became, in spite of ourselves, part of our family.

Then there was Brandon. The foundling child. The 17 year-old ball of muscle and glee and Jesus-joy who couldn’t stay at his house anymore, so my parents — already having sent two children off to college and the world — brought him home to theirs and taught him how to live in a family, how to do his laundry, when to do his laundry (midnight is never a good time), and how to be responsible, and then sent him off to college too. He still comes home for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Then my sister came back for awhile, took a break from college, moved back in with my parents, got herself together and moved out and on.

Then came grandma. Too lonely and too sick and, at last, too blind to stay by herself anymore. They brought her from California to Oklahoma along with a load of her most prized possessions.

Then came me. The Chicago daughter. Broke, effectively homeless and bruised after too many knocks by the big city. The daughter who’d induced more than a few angry tears. Come home to stay awhile, to get her feet back under her. Because she’s family, after all.

Perhaps when Jesus said that his disciples should hate their fathers and mothers, that they should leave their family of origin to follow him, what he meant to do was to open up our families a little bit more. Because when you follow Jesus, Jesus shows you what it means to be a child of God. And when you see what it means to be a child of God, you see that everyone else is also a child of God. And you can open your arms and home and life to them, all of them.

Because they’re family, after all.


  1. how am i not in this story except that i never lived at your house.

    Comment by Jerry — November 7, 2007 @ 11:58 pm | Reply

  2. hmm. my family does not look like the sunday school vision.
    two kids, shuffled back and forth between divorced parents.
    when growing up my house looked a bit like yours without the diversity- my mom had a tendency to aquire wayward teenage girls. well, tiffany wasn’t wayward so much as having a crazy family she needed to escape from. and meike was an exchange student, not wayward. tabitha was definately wayward. and more cats than we were ever alowed to admit to. (my mother told us, “if anyone asks, say we have ABOUT three cats. only crazy people have more than three.” i’ve also always been surrounded by extended family- my great grandmother had 6 children who all lived long full lives in the same town, and so my dad had a lot of cousins, who had lots of children whom i’m not even sure how to properly address. (are they second cousins? how does the removal thing work?)i miss my family, but i prefer living states away than ever living in reading again.

    Comment by caitlin leah — November 8, 2007 @ 11:41 pm | Reply

  3. very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

    Comment by Idetrorce — December 15, 2007 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

  4. This is beautiful, Liz. Really beautiful. I’m sorry I can’t say more than that, or say only this much but say it better. But really that’s what this is. Beautiful.

    Comment by Ruth Arnell — July 30, 2008 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

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  6. Ah, the land of the free!
    You have the right to free speech as long as you speak English.

    best regards, Greg

    Comment by lcd — January 24, 2010 @ 11:26 am | Reply

  7. we always keep track of our family tree because it is exciting to know the family tree “*”

    Comment by Wood Shelf — December 1, 2010 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

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