By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler
I once read an advice columnist’s comments to a gentleman who was concerned about his wife’s preoccupation with having a child, and their struggles to conceive after three years of trying and countless visits to IVF doctors. He said his wife becomes upset when friends become pregnant, is “obsessed with all things ‘baby,’” and is in denial that they simply might just not have kids. The columnist commented that his wife was not in denial, rather in despair. She said his wife is aching to be a mother – and that’s a real ache. She advised the man to get counseling for the couple, as well as to consider adoption. In fact, she said, she was an adoptive mother. The columnist added that there are children in the world who need mothers just as badly as his wife needs to be one. She assured the man that the instant he and his wife hold their baby, the importance of the manner in which the child was delivered will dissolve in tears of joy.
My husband and I had been following the Camelot television series and during one episode, Arthur spoke to a man who was afraid of losing his daughter if she ever discovered that he was not her biological father. When Arthur spoke, my husband and I just looked at each other and smiled – finally, a script writer who truly “gets” adoption, who truly understands that families can be built by choice as well. To the man, Arthur said, “It’s not blood that ties you together; it’s the memories you share. Everything you taught her, everything you gave up for her – it’s your love, that’s what flows through her.”
How a child comes into a family is not as important as the blessing that the child is there. In my life, I have experienced the love of family members with whom I share not one ounce of blood. When I look back on my childhood, I see clearly how many ways those special people were more of a family to me in the true meaning and experience of the word than most of my “blood” relatives. Some people remark that they “don’t see race” as a factor in how they interact with people from ethnicities other than their own. (I laugh heartily when Stephen Colbert humorously states this on his television show – of course we see race!) In the same way, I don’t see how inherited physical and personality traits such as daddy’s eye color, mommy’s nose, and grandpa’s sense of humor are at all relevant in how a family lives and loves together.
Unknowingly, my mother taught me about the beauty of building a family through adoption. She was an only child and built her family through friends with whom she became close over the years. My aunts and uncles were introduced into my life from those friendship bonds. And guess what? I was none the wiser. There was no talk of a woman not being my “real” aunt, nor lengthy explanations and justifications as to why Mr. and Mrs. X became my grandparents. Two wonderful married couples who had been friends with my parents became my aunts and uncles – Don and Louise, who were my godparents and who have since passed away, and Bob and Nancy, who continue to be such a delightful present in my family’s life.
Two other sets of “relatives” in particular influenced my life in some very profound ways. I have definitely “inherited” my Aunt Mary Alice’s flair for entertaining masses of people in my home without breaking a sweat. Her grace and class, and the way her home was made an open, welcoming haven for traveling family and friends no matter what else she had going on, astounds me. She also imparted to me the importance of moisturizing one’s entire body with lotion daily – clearly a beauty regiment necessity!
I remember my mother once remarked about Mary Alice saying, “She saved my life,” as her eyes welled up with tears. Mary and her husband, Bob, had become my mother’s family when she had none. A blood tie alone to another person does not necessarily make them family.
When my dear Aunt Mary became very ill, I wanted to be present during this difficult time. I wanted to give something back to the people who are forever bound to me through love. As I stayed present with my Aunt Mary while Uncle Bob played cards with his friends and went to the movies, as I helped to feed and dress her, as I looked into her eyes and smiled, I was overcome with emotion. These people had become my true family and I was so much closer to them than many of those who share inherited traits with me. When my aunt finally passed away, my heart broke in places I didn’t know it could – I had lost a big piece of it.
I had a similar experience growing up with my grandmother and grandfather. Both of my parents’ fathers had died before I was born, and my paternal grandmother passed away after having seen me only once when I was just one year old. My maternal grandmother battled cancer throughout my childhood and passed away when I was in the ninth grade. So the grandparents I refer to were actually our neighbors.
When my mother returned to work, she asked a retired woman in the neighborhood to help with afterschool care for me and my sisters. However, Edna and her husband, Septimus, became so much more – they became our grandmom and grandpop. They became a very special part of my life, sharing everything from school days to birthdays. Septimus passed away when I was a freshman in college and when my beloved grandmother passed away in 2001, I felt as though a piece of my life had died too. I assure you that in all the years I was blessed to have her in my life, her homemade cookies, cakes, and pies tasted no less delicious and her presence in my life was no less special because we were not related by blood.
Now the same need for family must be fulfilled for my son. He too is an only child, and my husband and I are not close with all of our immediate family members. So, we have looked outside of those relationships for aunts, uncles, and cousins. As you can see from the snapshots, my best friends and their families have been very present in my son’s life. He calls them aunts, uncles, and cousins. They are the ones who make the effort to stay in touch across the miles, to send my son special gifts, to visit or host us when we visit them. They are the ones who support us in raising him, uplift us when we experience life’s challenges, and celebrate when we share our joys. They are our family and we treasure them!
Do you have a special person who has become family even though they are not related by blood? I would be interested to hear your story about that treasured relationship!