What greater gift is there in life than the love of family? I realize not everyone has a family that knows how to show love, but I have been blessed beyond what I deserve with parents and siblings who have stayed the course with me. The following musings were originally written on August 29, 2009. As you read, may you be reminded of the people in your life who you are fortunate enough to call “family.”
Over the past 48 hours, like millions of Americans, I watched portions of the funeral proceedings and tributes to Senator Ted Kennedy. Liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, catholic or Baptist, all of us could admit that this man lived his life for a cause he believed was bigger than himself. The most striking part of the coverage to me was the reminders of how supportive the Kennedy clan is to their own. Joe and Rose Kennedy somehow instilled in their children the importance of a family sticking together in the tough moments. There really is nothing quite like a family. Just the word family conjures up feelings of warmth, safety and love for many people. Through my work of mentoring teenage girls and as a foster parent I have come to learn that not everyone has a family that brings them warmth, safety and love. I always thought the home I grew up in was the norm, now I realize how fortunate I was. Recently, at a funeral for a dear friend of mine, I was again reminded of how precious my brothers and sisters are to me. At my friend Leslie’s memorial service, Leslie’s sister, Evelyn spoke of the gift of having a sibling and what that means in our lives. I was challenged and convicted to hear Evelyn speak of her relationship with Leslie. She said, “Siblings are those people who through one word, look, or phrase can take you back to a period in time that no one else in your life understands in quite the same way.” As she spoke, I thought about my own siblings.
I grew up in an unusual home, though it all seemed very normal to me at the time. My parents had five biological children but opened their home to many others who came in and out of our lives. People who, for whatever reason, needed a place to stay or a haven to run to, or a shelter from their own personal storms. Many people call my parents mom and dad, other than those who bear their name. So I have many siblings. It does get a little tricky when trying to explain the family tree and where each one came from and how they fit into the fabric of the Crawford family. But it gives me an amazing sea of faces and memories to cherish. Moments that have enriched my life and helped shape me into the person I am.
There is Dean, the oldest of the group. He broke his leg falling out of the school bus in 5th grade and I think I cried as much as he cried. He has always been, academically, the smartest of our crew. He had a paper route and used to pay us to help him roll and bag Sunday papers. He brought Hank, Scoonie and Anthony into the family; friends that felt at home at our house as much, if not more than at their own homes. Sandy is the second oldest and a great big sister to emulate. She was the book worm. She read everything she could get her hands on and she scribbled her name on everything we owned: cracker boxes, phone books, my homework, it didn’t matter. She was very proud of her handwriting and her name I guess. In our adult life, she has been a mentor and a wonderful role model as a mother. She has instilled faith and a love for God in her two daughters that would make any mother proud. When I couldn’t have children of my own, Sandy’s girls were my surrogate children. I poured myself into them and she so graciously has allowed me to be a large part of the girls’ lives. I was the middle child and everything that comes with that role is true about me. Sandy and I had two friends in school who adopted themselves into our family: Ellen and Debbie. Debbie is now in Heaven after a much too short battle with ovarian cancer and Ellen loved us so much, she married into the family so she could be official! She married my mom’s youngest brother and so now, my childhood best friend is my aunt. Anyway, Melissa was next in line and she got all the looks. She was and is beautiful inside and out. She is a master at reaching out to people and pulling them into her world. She never meets a stranger and when I’m with her, I feel like I’m with a celebrity because she knows everyone in town. The only thing Sandy and I could do better than Melissa was sing. We have always teased Melissa that she can hold our microphone and work our tape/CD table when we make a recording. Melissa reached out and included Lisa and Misty into our family. They were cousins that often needed our home as a refuge and being close to their ages, Melissa was naturally the one who shared the most with them. David was the baby in the family when we were growing up. He was a master at shifting blame to where we all got in trouble for his antics. David brought Rodney, Anthony and our cousin, Warren Gene into the inner circle. One of our most beloved and hilarious family stories involves Warren Gene, my mom, and a bowl of soup. But that story is for another day’s telling. When the five of us were very young, a young lady named Judy came into our world. Judy, whose nickname was Country, came along and was the first one to call my parents’ mom and dad other than us five kids. Hearing it so young, I never thought it odd and have since heard lots of people refer to Dean and Linda Crawford as mom and dad, momma Linda and Daddy Dean, my other mother, etc.
After the five of us grew up and left home, mom and dad started over with Stacy and now Austin. Stacy was a four month old little girl that I began babysitting when I was a teenager. When I got married and moved away, my parents were already attached to her and so they began babysitting her. That led to a stronger bond and attachment and now Stacy is as much as part of us as if she were biologically connected. Austin came to the family as a 15 month old baby who needed a home and well, everyone knows mom and dad don’t say no. He is now 10 and is a wonderful addition to the clan. So the five of us now say there are seven of us, with extras all around the fringes. My parents even attract adult children…it’s the strangest thing. We have Dale, a larger than life prison guard who is tough as nails but wants to be adopted, figuratively speaking. And then theirs Hub (real name Jimmy) who thinks my dad hung the moon. He’s not wrong by the way.
When life throws you a curve ball and you find you have to realign yourself, it’s great to have a network of people to hide amongst. When tragedy strikes, you just know these people will run to your side and just their presence eases your burden. When something funny happens, it is so natural to share it with them and know that they will appreciate your humor. During the Ted Kennedy tributes, I was reminded that we each begin and end this life surrounded by a small network of people we call family. And that regardless of what we accomplish in life, where we go, how much we change and grow, or what setbacks we experience, we all, in the end, are defined by our family. We begin life with them and if we are fortunate, end life surrounded by them. It is a tremendous gift to have a small group of people who know us at our core, overlook our shortcomings, love us unconditionally, and would fight in a minute for us and fight us in the next minute.
The ability to recall a memory and have someone else share that same memory with you is an incredible process when you think about it. But it is true, that one word or phrase beginning with, “do you remember…” can take you back and instantly you’re sharing a bond again, that others outside of the circle of participants can never understand. The smells, the tastes, the settings, the faces, the moments of discovery, all are enriched when shared with people you love. Isn’t that what makes family gatherings so special? The stories we tell at reunions, weddings, funerals, and other social gatherings are what make our group of participants unique and different from every other family. They are memories that belong only to us. They are nuggets in our lives that, even if painful, set us apart while binding us together all at the same time.
My parents gave me so many gifts in my childhood from which I still reap benefits. One of the greatest gifts they bestowed was in giving me siblings. Whether biological or not, they gave me a group of people who will grow with me, love me, support me, help me when I’m weak, challenge me when I’m wrong and celebrate with me when I’ve done well. I love them, am proud of them and will always be indebted to each one for the imprint they made on my life.