I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for over a week now, spending time with family, and old friends, back home. And I’ve been thinking a lot about family. About my family. About my brother Terry, of course, who died recently. About his wife and daughters. About my mum. And my sisters and step-brother, as we all gathered back in Fredericton for Terry’s funeral.
And I’ve been thinking what an odd phenomenon the whole concept of family is. And about what it means to me. What it literally means… as in how I would even begin to define that word.
You see, I come from the original blended family. Back in the day, there were no other kids I knew whose mother had a different surname, who had a step-brother, and a grandmother who wasn’t really their grandmother, or cousins who weren’t actually cousins. I just knew who I knew, and loved who I loved. So what did blood or surname really matter, anyway?
I was reminded of this idea, of the meaning of family, at the reception following my brother’s funeral. I came up behind two cousins, tall, handsome men in their fifties, sons of my mother’s brothers. I squeezed between them, put my arms around their waists, and said, “How did I ever get two such handsome cousins?” And one looked at the other and chuckled, “We’re adopted.” And so they were. Both of them, by two of Mum’s brothers, making them Sullivan cousins to me, and to each other. One of them, my cousin Mark, gave Terry’s eulogy, pointing out that Terry was effectively his older brother, this eldest male cousin whom he’d always admired. So, cousin, brother… does the title really matter?
|My cousin Mark and me|
You know, it makes me feel a little guilty to think of how much I enjoyed that reception. Seeing so many people from Terry’s and my shared past. Family and old friends who hadn’t seen him regularly for years and years were there. Men who were friends with him when they were boys together getting into mischief. One in particular, who I hadn’t seen since I was a kid of nine or ten, introduced himself to me, and I yelped and hugged him, and said he must be sure to talk to Mum before he left. “Will she still be mad at me, do you think?” he asked with a grin, referring to a long-ago scrape which was legendary at our house. “Probably,” I said. And one woman, my sister’s friend, whose brother was Terry’s best man at his wedding, and who I remember coming to our house with her boyfriend when I was about eleven. They’d heard that my cat had run away, and they brought me a kitten. I wish I’d thought to share that memory with her, but I didn’t remember it until later. And another old friend of my sister, who dated Terry when I was little, and whom I always loved. I was so happy to see them all. These people who felt like family to me growing up, like extensions of my big brother and sisters. And really, who’s to say they’re not family?
|The Burpee girls together again.|
As we gathered at my Mum’s house later that day to eat sandwiches, we laughed and shared memories of the day. Of the three men who had stood in a row, grinning at my sister, asking if she remembered babysitting them. She laughed, and said that she looked at them and thought, “You’re old. How could I babysit you?” I guess three or four years makes a big difference when you’re fifteen… and no difference at all in your sixties. It was wonderful to be together with both of my sisters again. We haven’t been home at the same time for many years. And my step-brother too, who flew in from Calgary. Because even though he only met Terry when he was twelve, when his father married our mother, they’ve been brothers ever since.
Hubby and I laughed on the way home to Ottawa a few days later as I tried to explain to him who was who at the funeral. He said he’d tried to keep up with me for a while at the reception, but I leapt from one conversation to another, and he finally gave up and decamped to the porch to sit in a comfortable rocking chair and wait for me to wind down. When I said I wanted to write a blog post about family, he said I should tell you the story of my “cousin, but not really.”
You see, my mother was widowed very young when my brother Terry and my two sisters were small. Years later she married my father and they had me. But we always remained close to her first husband’s family. And so I grew up with an extra grandmother, which didn’t dawn on me until I was about eight or nine, and I asked my mum how come I was so lucky as to have three grandmothers. And all those extra cousins, who, it transpired, weren’t actually my cousins by blood. One summer when I was in university, Mum and I went to stay for the weekend with Nana, and I went out for the evening with my “cousin” Robert who is the same age as me. He stopped to pick up a friend of his, and introduced me as his “cousin, but not really.” We laughed as I explained. Then when I asked this other boy what his last name was, and he said Sullivan, well, the penny dropped. “Who’s your father, and grandfather?” I asked. He told me, and then chortled, “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m your cousin, but not really.” “No-oo,” I said, amazed, “I think you really are my cousin.” Ha. And so he was. His father was my mother’s first cousin, and growing up many miles apart we’d never met. I love that story.
But that’s probably way too many cousins for you. A cousin too far, you might say. So I’ll stop.
I’m not sure what I wanted to say in this post. I’m certainly not going to try to define what the word family means. But I do know that, to me, it doesn’t have much of anything to do with birth certificates, and blood, and who was married to whom. Don’t get me wrong, I love to research my family background, and see where my ancestors came from and when. I love family stories, which you’ll already know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while.
But how to explain family ties? Well, we know who we know, and we love who we love. I guess. I do know that seeing all these people I know, and knew, and love, and loved way back when has helped me deal with the loss of my brother.
That’s for sure.