Saturday, April 22, 2006

Family Values

The first year I was in college in Wichita, I had a friend, Tom, who was a piano performance major. When I learned that there was going to be a concert by a famous pianist in Tulsa, I asked Tom if he’d like to go down to see the concert, which was on a Sunday night.

Well, it just so happened that my dad’s restaurant was severely short-handed at the time, as a result of a couple of cashiers’ health and family problems, so I was driving from Wichita to Coffeyville every weekend to work there. So Tom drove down from Wichita Sunday morning, and met me at the cafeteria. The same day, we had a family birthday dinner at my aunt Sue’s house, before we went to the concert. Tom was welcomed to the table for Sue’s famous spaghetti.

That’s the way my family operates: if someone appeared at suppertime, whether it was a relative or one of our friends or someone my sister or I was dating, we set an extra place at the table and they joined us. The neighbor kids were in and out of our house and yard so much that one summer my mom tried to lay down the law about how much time they could spend there (it didn’t work). My grandparents, when I was little, lived in a neighborhood full of kids, and we’d play together all morning on Saturday, then Grandma would fix us a picnic lunch of cheese and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, which we’d eat on the picnic table in the backyard, washed down with Kool-Aid made by the mom of some of the neighbor kids. One of my high school boyfriends was beaten badly by his father one night, and he came to our house to be safe and get help.

When we hear politicians talking about “family,” oftentimes they use the term in an exclusive sense. “Family” means certain kinds of people, and not others (as if those others somehow sprang unaided into existence without parents, siblings, or other family members), and any who don’t fit the mold are defined out. I think, based on my own family, that they define the term much too narrowly. My family may not be terribly diverse ethnically or racially, but we’re still a pretty variegated lot.

My family includes couples who’ve been married for decades, divorced folks, people who haven’t ever gotten married. There are gay and lesbian people in my family. We have foster children, stepchildren, adopted children, and children who arrived in the “usual” way—and there are households where there aren’t any children at all. We are professional people, homemakers, teachers, bankers, tradesmen, management and union folks. Four generations of my family have had careers involving food. We live in cities and in rural areas. We are teetotalers, alcoholics, and everything in between. We have a variety of political, social and religious views. Yes, we sometimes get on one another’s nerves, sometimes we argue, but we’d lay down our lives for one another if need be, protect and defend one another in whatever way is called for. And the door’s always open to welcome relatives and friends alike, with grace and love and good things to eat. (Too many good things to eat, in a lot of cases.)

Often we hear church described as a family. If that’s the case, I hope we’re a family like mine.