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.

Double Trouble

For some reason that will forever remain unexplained, we decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day by adopting another cat. Okay, maybe pressing myself to the glass in the pet store had something to do with it. I adore black cats! And Shadow had such a regal manner about her. She was beautiful.

So we made enquiries…and brought home not one, but two new cats, both of them black.

Now we have four roaming the house. Four. And I’m still wondering why. But, confusion aside, I’m enjoying our new guests. Sisi and Shadow had bonded at the store and separating them would have been upsetting for all involved. Shadow is the more shy of the pair and I really believe Sisi helped her adapt to her new home. She already had one friend. They’re very sweet cats and after only a handful of days, they’ve made friends with our other two, Jack and Java.

Sisi and Shadow are one and a half and two, and Jack and Java are ten and thirteen, so we have a bit of an age gap to bridge. I thought Jack and Java were playful, for their age, but after exhausting myself dragging the feather stick around for Sisi and Shadow, I’ve come to appreciate how settled the older two have actually become. Jack and Java take regular naps. I can set my clock by them. And they most often sleep all night—Jack most notably at my side where he employs his anti-gravity generator in order to become the heaviest object in the universe.

They do play, fitfully, but often abandon the action once they figure out the source. Once they see you moving the laser pointer, they lose interest in the little red dot. They love their catnip toys. When the house is empty (but for me and the cats), I often hear one of them sucking it. Yeah, I know, that’s pretty gross, but those of us who live with cats know that’s about the least of it. Between the litter boxes and fur balls, cats are not the tidy creatures they’re made out to be.

Sisi and Shadow want to play ALL the time. They want to play at 5:30 am when I’m trying not to trip over four cats, they want to play at 8:00 pm when I’ve already decided that horizontal is the best position I’ve assumed all day, and they want to play somewhere between 1:00 am and 3:00 am when I’m stumbling toward the kitchen for another antihistamine. (After a week or so, I’ll get used to the new fur.) Luckily, I have a twelve year old daughter who is happy to entertain them. Might sound kind of sappy, but listening to her giggle while she waves the feather stick around makes me smile. I like to know all my children are happy.

Four cats feels like a bit of a herd, but unlike a herd, they rarely all head in the same direction at the same, unless I’m shaking the treat bag. Encouraging them to do so otherwise is absolutely futile. I’ve been living with cats for forty years, I should know this, but I spent an hour this afternoon trying to group them together for a photo. Yeah, I really did. I went through a lot of treats for the couple of blurry shots I got. Later, I did manage to get two of them in one reasonable shot and the two others separately. I’m going to share those. Then I’m going to go and take a nap. All that galloping and trilling between invitations to play is wearing me out.

Shadow and Jack are wondering where Spring is.
Java, our old lady. I think the “kittens” are wearing her out, too.
Anyone for a game of chess? Sisi will play black, of course.