All Happy Families

I’m not close to my folks, not the way other people seem to be.

I'm not heartless though

I’m not heartless though

We moved from Nashville to Shanghai when I was six, and I saw my extended family during home-leave, the month of summer General Motors gave us to tour the US. I’d see Mom’s people in New Braunfels in Texas for a week and then we’d visit one or another branch of Dad’s side, in Oregon or Washington or down in New Orleans.

My mother’s father died when she was seventeen, and her mother passed during my last summer in China. We didn’t go back to Texas much after that. My father’s parents started ailing soon after, and what I saw of his brothers and their kids depended on who was caretaking at the time. I’d go years between seeing a given set of cousins, and there’s a group of Texans I haven’t laid eyes on in a decade.

When I went away to college, I took a perverse pride in how emotionally independent I was from my folks. Other kids would call home daily or weekly for advice and support while I might go months between phone calls. My parents had helped me to grow up an independent kid, and I thought it was all advantage at the time, that I was making my way on my own and better for it. That was a fiction and an obvious one—I wasn’t paying my own way, and there are mistakes I made in college they could have helped me to head off.

Even now, my folks are in China and I have less contact with them than, I think, any other volunteer has with theirs. Schedules and time zones keep us from Skyping, but I try to write more and make sure they follow the blog so at least they’ll have that bare-minimum of information. All the same, I don’t see family in the way quite the same way as my friends and fellow-volunteers, can’t imagine planning my future based on their geography, tethering myself to Nashville where they’ll retire.

If that stance is troubling to my friends in the States, it’s incomprehensible to the people here. Mexican kids live with their folks until they’re married, and explaining the shame inherent in moving back home in the US is a non-starter. Tíos and primos and abuelos are always around, no more than a few streets off, and the group grows larger through inclusion. Padrinos and padrinas are as responsible for a kid as the real thing, and mutually adopted comadres and compadres knit whole clans together.

The strange thing is as distant as I am at home, I’m in it here. When I talk about my host family—which began as Trey and Janessa’s host family and took me in, no reservations, case-in-point—I’m not toeing a Peace Corps line. These people are my people now, and they’re as quick to tell you the same.

My constellation of Mexican relatives dwarfs any sense of family I’d had before. Guadalupe’s my mother, her daughters Monica, Yimna, and (the recently un-long-lost) Abigail my sisters and friends, her brother Martin and his wife Eli my doting tíos, along with my tío Rafa and his wife and all their sons, my cousins Elihú, Memo, and Rafa Yunior. Sofia, Lupe’s lifelong friend, is my comadre and one of my better friends in town (I teach her to bake and she has me over for cocktails from the dry-bar), while her daughter Atalí is another confidante. Lupe’s legendary grandfather had something on the order of forty kids, so I’m related obliquely to most of central Jalpan, and explaining whose wedding I’m going to in a given week reads like a scene from Spaceballs. “It’s my mother’s comadre’s boss’s daughter’s brother-in-law’s niece’s son,” and he’s getting hitched to someone who, if we thought about it, is probably more closely related.

These are some of them

These are some of them

I chose to spend Christmas here in site instead of blowing two weeks in the States because I couldn’t imagine missing the biggest family party of the year, uncomfortably rocking a wooden infant Jesus with a distant cousin and talking food with Lupe’s chefly older daughter, dancing huapango in the jardín with my primos and trying to class the party up so we could show off to Lupe’s wealthier in-laws. Not because it’s fascinating or because I think it makes good material but because I’m invested, because I want to show those folks that our side of the family can represent.

My host family gives and accepts wholeheartedly because it’s the only way they know how to be. They take care of us, salving colds with obscure teas and herbed-up honeys, give us blankets when we’re cold and advice on sleeping with the heat when May rolls around. My tío Martin was the first to high-five me when I brought my girlfriend from the city back here and his wife Eli the first to draw me aside and warn me about girls looking for papers.

I think I’m a better guy for the way my parents raised me, more able and more willing to fall into things like the Peace Corps. Because I know that they’re out there somewhere, lending implicit support across the distance. But if I think about how I might like to raise my kids, I’m torn between independence and this huge warm net of relations.

In the end I might just have to send my kids to Mexico. Build in them the distance my parents gave to me and then have them down here in summer to speak Spanish and eat tamales and drink atole and learn what it means to love Grandma Lupe.

One thought on “All Happy Families

  1. Hmmm… another ‘thinker’ – I, perhaps biasedly, think James struck a venerable balance. Loves his city, state, family AND independence. Well adjusted home and abroad. Now, Jon, you have extended family in Kalamazoo too!

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