I do not believe that biological bonds automatically make family. Family must be earned through respect, accountability, and nurturing, which occurs far less frequently in bloodlines that we care to admit. In a way, I consider the people with whom I am closest to be “family.” But they are chosen family–god family, really, for nothing is holier than love freely given and love freely received.
You may have noticed I rarely discuss my biological family in the present though I am the queen of memory lane. That is because I stay away from them for reasons that are too complex and too raw to air here. Suffice it to say I learned the hard way that my emotional and physical health required distance that was more than geographic. I adore my little sister but we have had a hard time in the wake of our different responses to the same battlefield. My parents and I experience an even wider abyss.
But this summer I’ve been writing about my biological family for the book to which I have been referring, and so I visit them all the time, at least in my imagination and memory. This is wonderful and this is harrowing. Mostly, it is harrowing. I’m spending a lot of time as a four-year-old at the mercy of charismatically flawed humans who probably should not have had kids. It is so harrowing that I postponed writing this book for years though it has tugged at me daily. Its lack of completion makes me feel incomplete in turn.
In the midst of this, my first cousin’s youngest son came to stay with me this week. His name is Jean-Paul and he is a beautiful person–tender-hearted and hard-working and pure of intent. He also is at a very precarious age, though what age is not when your clan is something to survive? The next few years will determine whether he’ll succumb to our family malaise (violence, poverty, abuse, malignant narcissism, teen pregnancy, and addiction is the general name of the game), and I pray for him daily. Since he was a small child he has shone a bright light that I’ve wished I could protect while rescuing myself.
His spirit is indomitable, and he shares one of our few family gifts. He has second sight and six senses and any other term you can apply to what I call Ruby Intuition. He knows when to reach out to me, and his sweet persistence worms past my defenses. So when he recently saved up enough to visit NYC, I agreed to host him though it scared me to open the door to anyone on my mother’s side. (I would worry about them reading this but doubt they read my blog, and no longer can afford to accommodate my mother’s feelings about my work.)
Our visit was wonderful and harrowing. Harrowing in the sense that the ghosts in my head suddenly were alive in my house. I love everyone in my extended clan—compulsively, helplessly –but like few of them. It is difficult to be reminded of how they savage themselves and others. But my 16-year-old cousin is compassionate and loving, and I was glad to share my hearth and city with him. Permakitten Grace was glad, as well.
One steamy afternoon, J.P. and I explored the many treasures and loudmouths lining Canal Street. I bought a rainbow-sparkled paper fan from a nervously skinny woman with a sunny, broken smile, and, for the rest of the day, fanned everyone around us with it. On the subway, on the sidewalk, even in line at Hedwig. Sometimes I was mischievous about it. Sometimes I was courtly. Sometimes I was theatrically matter-of-fact. Everyone smiled, and some even laughed and thanked me. The exchange surprised and then amused my cousin, who had been warned New Yorkers were unkind and dangerous. No, I told him. The kindness of strangers is very real here. It is the people who think they can do anything to you because they are bound by blood that you should fear.
When one of my dear friends met J.P., she saw his big heart and big hope and loved him immediately. She told him, now you have two cousins in New York, and she meant it. She never says anything she does not mean, which is one of the reasons I love her. He smiled so broadly that my heart temporarily broke.
It is a tremendous gift to have chosen family who shares my blood. (I have a kindred spirit aunt on my father’s side, too.) Some people know nothing else but more of us—despite the family propaganda that is pushed down our throat—have to protect ourselves from the very people who should support us. This punishing Venus Retrograde has had many lows and one enormous high: Now I have a biological cousin who also is god family. We share an understanding of our past. Better yet, we share a future.
Here is J.P.’s account of his first visit to New York.