Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
[p90]In the mail the other day, I received a form to be filled out. It was from one of the growing number of organizations that keep tabs on me, and they wanted their files updated. In addition to name, address, teeth count, and other vital statistics, the form had one item that stopped me dead in mid-scribble, I must admit.
It read: FAMILY STATUS .
Of course we’re all familiar with the “Marital Status” blank on forms—or even, on bureaucracy’s off-days, “Martial Status.” (To which I crisply reply, “Armed and ready!”) There is an easy spectrum—single-married-widowed-divorced—to pick from for the “marital status” slot, though I’m not at all convinced that those four exhaust the possibilities. (I understand that on the West Coast now, some data sheets ask you to specify the name of “Spouse or Significant Other,” abbreviated S. O.)
But how do you answer a question that wants a one-word response to “family status?” What do you say? ‘Intact?” “Dispersed?” “Eating me out of house and home?” How do you define your “status” in your family? Think of the possible answers there: “Still considered the baby of the family at 45.” [p.91]“Barely tolerated.” “One rung ahead of the dog, as nearly as I can tell.”
Perhaps the question really means to ask about family makeup, such as who’s in your family and why. If that’s the question, they really need to provide more than a two-inch line for the response. I understand that the matter of who constitutes a family nearly shipwrecked the National Conference on Families earlier this year. One group kept talking about “the family?”; another group insisted that it was more appropriate to speak of “families,” taking into account what varied assortments of people consider themselves families. Jane Howard, author of the best-selling book, A Different Woman, came out with a second book titled Families, which she might well have called Different Families. In it, she makes the point that today family groups are determined by many factors in addition to genealogy and biology. How do you define a family?
Especially around holiday time, that question, and how we answer it, can have a direct bearing on our day-to-day happiness and sense of well-being. Our cultural moorings are such that, whatever else happens at Christmas, we need to be with, or at least in contact with, the people we care most about and who care most about us. In a manner of speaking, to wrest Emily Dickinson’s poem, one pine cone and a family can make a Christmas, but a lone individual plus the whole of Neiman-Marcus can still come up short. The key, then, is what we feel constitutes a family to add to the pine cone. I wonder if a great many people don’t feel a vague but poignant sense of displacement during this season because we as a culture have had a limited sense of family. For so many decades, everything from the mannequins in store windows to characters in seasonal literature to the casts of TV dramas have portrayed The Family At
Christmastime thus: Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, Dog, Cat. If the enterprise is really big- budget, the circle may expand to include Grandpa and Grandma and some extra kids. This image, repeated over and over since our childhood, convinces us that such a grouping is the framework we must have for that deep, undeniable need to belong and to be loved.
What is a family, anyway? Does every “real” family have children? Or can we rather say that the crucial feeling is one of connecting up with the on-going generations of the human race, feeling a part of the larger Family by holding or romping with [p.92]those who are where we have been, who are coming up to where we are. Doesn’t the belonging come through being involved, whether by blood or adoption or association or career or volunteer service or the most informal kind of neighborhood dynamics, with the next link in the chain? Some people who bear or beget children lack such a feeling; many without children have it nevertheless.
Is a family necessarily “incomplete” (or “broken” as we often callously call it) if there is one parent instead of two? The history of early Utah is a record of countless one-parent families, mothers raising large numbers of children with only occasional short visits from fathers shared with other families and with church duties. Sometimes these strong, nurturing pioneer families included aunts and sister-wives, live-in cousins, and children who became unequivocal family members not by birth or formal adoption but by simple love and need.
Gladys Aylsworth was a diminutive, barely educated English scullery maid who dreamed of a life’s mission—teaching Christianity to the peoples of China. The story of how she made her dream come true is told in the book, The Small Woman, and in the film made from it, “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” Human life being so teeming in that part of the world, there was little premium put on it, and babies, especially girls, were often abandoned on the roadside. During the war, Gladys shepherded more than a hundred such children across mountain passes to reach safety. A few of the hundreds of children she rescued during her years in China seemed marked, by some cosmic choice, as hers in a particular way. These stayed with her. She cared for them, saw that they were educated, loved them. Were she and they any less family because no common genes were shared, nor even a common racial background?
Some years ago, two young Southern women met as freshmen at a large Eastern university. Though one was nervously talkative and the other very nearly silent, both were shy and out of their element. They became friends and decided to share an apartment. Thirty-two years later, they have encouraged each other through career ups and downs, and through the coming and goings of various romances. They have pooled their savings to help Jill’s nephew through college, and turned over their guest-room to Jean’s invalid mother. Both teach Sunday School [p.93]in the large Baptist church they attend. Christmases these years find them busy extending Southern hospitality to visiting nieces and nephews, cousins and other kin, plus university students who can’t make it back to wherever home is for them.
A lot of people these days seem very nervous about what they call “the future of the American family,” as though it might somehow become extinct, like the passenger pigeon. And I guess, theoretically, that could happen; I’ve read Brave New World and other science fiction that predicts such gloomy non-family and even anti-family civilizations. I’ve also read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, which fantasizes a wonderful, though different, kind of family structure. Yes, I know there are a lot of divorces. I also know that something like 85 percent of all divorced women and 95 percent of all divorced men remarry. And what about children? I’ll bet if we did a count, we’d find that children hang around home for more years today than ever before. Eighty years ago, kids were done with school and out on their own by 14 or 16—well, at least the boys were. The girls were married and out on somebody else’s own. Today parents are lucky if they can nudge the overgrown fledglings out of the nest before the boys start to go bald. And speaking of divorce, what happens when people do divorce? Where do they go? You guessed it. A good many of the women and quite a few of the men go back to their families of origin. And what’s this myth about families carting their old folks off to the Home in their last years? Statistics indicate that only 4 percent of elderly Americans are institutionalized. The rest take care of themselves or are under the wing of a son or daughter.
Years ago, when our family moved from New Jersey to Arizona, our East Coast neighbors said, “But won’t it be awful—Christmas without snow?” Our response at the time was to mumble something about the first Christmas not being exactly snowbound. But later, as we came to experience Christmas in the wide desert country, as we saw the delicate, lacy Palo Verde trees strung with hundreds of tiny outdoor bulbs, as we saw our Hispanic friends line the streets with flickering candles inside paper bags, making a bobbing chain of light and shadow, as we watched on Christmas Eve while the giant saguaro cactus, limbs upraised as though in benediction, became silhouetted against the darkening dome of sky, we understood: it [p.94]wasn’t the setting that made Christmas, but Christmas that made the setting. We hadn’t loved Christmas because of the snow; we’d loved the snow because of Christmas.
So it is with families. Beyond the needs of basic comfort and safety, it doesn’t matter whether a home is a hut or a hogan, or a mansion or a condo, only that within its walls we feel secure and cherished. It doesn’t matter if the hand that pushes the stroller or the porch swing belongs to a man or a woman, only that it extends tenderness and an abundance of touching.
It doesn’t really matter if there’s a big chair, a middle-sized chair, and a teeny-weeny chair, only that the people who sit in those chairs pull them around to face each other for hours of free, open-hearted, on-going talk.
Oh, by the way, about that question on the form that asked for my FAMILY STATUS. In the blank, after much deliberation, I wrote, “Fine!”