It’s All Relative

Getting engaged has upended my concept of “family.”

I come from a small family — just mom, dad, and me. We’ve never been much for family gatherings, as my mother’s side of the family lives far and wide across the United States (California, Arizona, and Iowa). We used to visit my mother’s parents every summer when I was younger, but they both have passed on, and most of my relatives on my father’s side of the family live in New York or Poland and don’t speak much English. So most of my family holiday celebrations are small, quiet affairs; I’ve come to enjoy shuffling around my parents’ townhouse in my pajamas while the smell of cooking wafts the three short feet from the kitchen to the couch.

Then, last month (on March 11, to be exact), I got engaged.

It’s a pretty big step, but we don’t plan to get married until 2012, so until I’m forced to confront the multitude of wedding details, it doesn’t yet feel like a huge change. (I’ve recently been informed that weddings usually have themes. Unfortunately, since I’m marrying a man who is literally colorblind, he gets to sidestep all the “does forest green go with daffodil yellow?” questions completely.)

No, the biggest change so far is the giant new family I’ve acquired. K’s parents are divorced, his father has remarried, and he has lots of family from both sides living on and around Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Family is one of his core values, so I can expect to spend a lot of time with them.

This Easter, I spent the day with K and his mother’s extended family: His mother, his younger brother, his grandmother, his three sets of aunts/uncles, various cousins, and a black lab named Rudder. I had met a lot of them before, at Thanksgiving, but I was just a girlfriend then, potentially someone just temporarily attached to K. This was the first real “family” gathering where I, a future member of the family, would interact with everyone else and they would have to pay attention.

Most of the day was exactly what anyone would expect at a family gathering. I shook hands with everyone, re-committed their names to memory, listened to various congratulations, and reminded everyone what it is that I do. The most fun part was recognizing the roles each member of the family played. There was the “robust” aunt and uncle, who own a farm and have gripping, hearty handshakes and forthright mannerisms and speech patterns. There was the “family” aunt and uncle, with three boys who spent the majority of Easter playing football outside and a little girl who ambled around the house and hid from K’s scary beard face. And there was the “cool” aunt and uncle, who read Twilight and work as a marine biologist, respectively. And, of course, I can’t forget the grandmother who made everyone sweet tea, smoked five cigarettes, and managed a very quiet air of proud, family love mingled with don’t-fuck-with-me authority.

Before dinner, the men and the women gathered on opposite ends of the screened-in patio to discuss sports and gardening. I was a quiet satellite on both ends of the conversation, having no interest or knowledge in either baseball or flowers. I guessed that nobody would be interested in my areas of expertise — say, David Foster Wallace‘s writing style, or teaching pedagogy — so I chimed in only when the conversation veered toward the personal.

It was around this time I started to fear I would be a permanent wallflower, not only for the entire evening but every subsequent family gathering. After all, I really had nothing in common with these people, despite the fact that they were all extremely nice. And I’ve always been woefully inadequate at small talk. I can never really think of anything to extend those kinds of conversations, and most of my awkward attempts make me feel like Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” when she attempts to make casual conversation with wealthy, conservative suits: “Hey, do you watch Heroes? I like the Asian guy.”

But I persevered in the conversations, mostly answering questions about myself. And then the three cousins I had met on Thanksgiving traipsed into the screened-in patio. My first thought upon looking at them was: Wow, they’ve gotten big. They seemed to have grown several inches since November. K noticed the same thing, as did a few others, which grew into a small conversation on how quickly the boys were growing. It made me think about how I had recently made the transition to my late 20s and how, in just a few short years, I’d be in my 30s and no longer (chronologically, at least) a kid.

And then it hit me: Not only had I recognized K’s three small cousins and remembered their names, but I had noticed that they had grown.

It was a profoundly weird experience, made even weirder by how natural it felt to notice the passage of time in this way. Even if I did notice that these boys had grown taller, I barely knew them, and it shouldn’t have helped me bond with the family nor should it have forced me to confront my own rapid movement through life. And yet, it did.

Throughout the rest of dinner, I began to have longer, more extended conversations. I learned about one aunt’s blossoming cake business and a different uncle’s job testing various bodies of water for pollution, run-off, and erosion. I started to recognize that most of the conversation was some variation of (1) catching up with people you haven’t seen in months and (2) finding broad areas of commonality for discussion. The whole purpose of the gathering seemed to be to strengthen the bonds that were weakened by time and distance and to approach the transitory nature of life (growing up, getting old, dying) together.

And I was doing exactly the same thing. I still didn’t know everyone that well, and I’m not yet married to K, but in a small way, I know I too am part of the family now.

Article © 2010 by Melissa Reddish