You Don’t Choose Your Family

I have just spent two days in Mississippi with relative strangers. It was a little bit weird…and more than a little bit wonderful. The food—oh, my goodness, the food. Southern favourites served with instructions to wash up and stow our hats. The manners—every single person capable of speech respecting their elders, even in the midst of disrespecting them. The stories—which included more than one tale of a good whooping. That last sounds better in the Mississippi accent, which brings me to the accents. Any more than two days of exposure and I think I’d slip into one. It’s beguiling, just like the heat and hospitality.

So who were these strangers? My husband’s family, or, to be more precise, the family of his birth mother.

Forty-seven years ago, he was adopted by a wonderful woman who raised him right. I have the utmost respect for his adoptive mother, even when we’re regarding one another from behind drawn lines. Yes, she’s a typical mother-in-law in that she believes only she knows her baby and only she knows what’s best for him. Before this ramble digresses into a rant regarding a woman I do actually love, let me move on! About two and a half years ago, my husband embarked on a search for his birth mother. He’d made a fitful attempt some years ago and abandoned it soon after. This time, he struck gold on the first try. It helped that his birth mother had submitted a request about sixteen years before that allowed an almost instant connection to happen.

An exchange of letters followed, then a phone call and a visit. Turned out his grandmother was having her ninetieth birthday that summer, so Husband flew to Mississippi to join the celebration. He came back with a certain glow. I don’t know his exact mind on the matter—he can be a man of few words until after a few drinks, and by then neither of us want to talk about important things, there’s mischief and mayhem to be had, or naps. But I can imagine a mixture of trepidation and excitement and a question of loyalty. He loves his adoptive mother, but must have been curious about his birth mother. I’m glad his first meeting with the family of his birth mother turned out to be such a happy occasion. Stories with happy endings are the best kind, after all.

Facebook “friending” ensued and all of a sudden I had friends I didn’t know. Family I didn’t know. Until that point, I hadn’t really considered how my husband finding his birth family would affect me and my daughter. She was excited, of course. I was a little more restrained in my reaction, which is weird for me as I am generally quite social and love to meet new people. I also adore my own large family and miss having the chance to visit them often as they are all in Australia. I suppose it was the idea of change, of redrawing some sort of invisible boundary I had set. Or maybe I’m just getting cantankerous in my old age. Either way, I fell into the bosom of this new family, willing or not.

And then I met them.

We drove for three days (coincidentally following some sort of Civil War trail from Pennsylvania to Mississippi, which I’m sure my husband meticulously planned). I was equal parts excited to see Mississippi as I was to meet his “new” family. After meeting them, the wonder of a new state faded into the background.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to be hugged seven times in the space of a minute by people you don’t know. To have their arms pull you in, tight, to have them exclaim how thrilled they are to finally meet you. Then they heard my accent and they were thrilled all over again. Never mind that I could listen to them talk for hours and hours. We quickly formed a mutual accent admiration society. And then we got to know one another and… you know what? After about an hour, they felt like family.

Obviously, they made a space for us. You do that when meeting people. You make a space for them, one appropriately shaped to the role you expect (or hope) they will play in your life. Then you invite them in to that space and all the little adjustments begin. You start with the childhood stories because everyone has a few to share and everyone can bond over being chased by a mother wielding a wooden spoon. You talk about your travels, where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. You carefully introduce uncertain subjects (like your insane love of disaster movies) and light up like a Christmas tree when you discover a reciprocal fondness. The conversation deepens and digresses and before you know it, it’s time for lunch.

Before this visit, I liked southern food. I’d never had home-cooked southern food, though. Cornbread fresh from the oven, the rounded bottom edge crisped from a well-seasoned skillet. Black-eyed peas jumbled in with onions, okra and chunks of ham. The ham. Oh, my God, the ham. Peach crisp. Cream cheese soup. Yes, it sounds like it will kill you and it probably would if you had it every day. But, wow, it’s good. And cheesy. Puddings and cakes and more corn bread. Chicken and dumplings.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah, family.

The first day we caravanned to Vicksburg and did the typical family outing thing: we dragged the kids around the military park while the menfolk read every plaque and the womenfolk gossiped. The second day we just flopped about on the lawn playing games, in between “air-conditioning breaks” because, Lord, it is hot and humid down here. There was no need to go anywhere and the conversation only flagged when we all took time to breathe. Then it was time for dinner.

(drool break)

After two days, I felt more relaxed than I had in months and I almost regretted the fact we planned to leave today. I say “almost” as we’re heading to New Orleans and that’s another first and I can’t wait. Because…food. And New Orleans. But, we’ll be back. We promised Husband’s great-grandmother we would be back and that’s not an oath to be taken lightly. Aside from that, though, I want to go back. I’d forgotten how easy it was to talk to people that you don’t have to pretend to like, or that you can just be yourself around, even if they don’t know who you are. I miss them already and I look forward to maintaining closer contact with this crowd of relative strangers who welcomed me into their home.  Who are no longer strangers at all.

We’ll probably rethink the whole Mississippi in August thing next time, though.

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