Family Ties

Guillermo is a local blogger who maintains a blog dedicated to issues relevant to new immigrants to Canada or those in the process of immigrating. Last week he featured a topic that struck a chord with me. Basically, he was asking how immigrants deal with the heartbreak of leaving their parents so far behind and more importantly, how do they deal with taking the children away from their grandparents.

My family immigrated to Canada when I was 2, so I never knew my grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins except as signatures on Christmas cards or the occasional parcel of goodies.  World travel wasn’t as popular or manageable back then so I only met most of them once.

But that one visit was indescribably wonderful. I wanted to stay. I was ready to never go back to Canada. And these were people I hadn’t seen since I was 2 and yet felt I belonged with. My parents had to drag me back. I cried for weeks. I plotted, planned, begged, pleaded and cajoled to try and get them to let me move there. It was impossible and I was crazy, of course. And by the time it was possible, I’d come to my senses and most of the relatives had died.

I felt the absence of an extended family when I was growing up. All those birthdays, Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings, summer vacations and other occasions when other kids would get together with a whole brood of relatives, we celebrated with just the 7 of us – sometimes maybe a friend or two. I laways felt very sorry for myself –  it was all so sad and lonely.

I wanted to know the grandparents I heard stories about all the time. I wanted an aunt or uncle to talk to or escape to when my I thought my parents were being unreasonable. And I really, really wanted cousins to hang out with – people my age that were relatives, but also friends – people that I had blood and history in common with.

Maybe I’m romanticizing the whole extended family thing because I never had one.  I know of course, that being in close proximity to family doesn’t guarantee sunshine-and-roses relationships. And I’ve heard people complaining about “stuff” that goes on when an entire tribe is so closely connected, but I would welcome that “stuff”. I would go so far even as to say that if I ever met a man with a really big, close family I might even break my vow of spinsterhood just so I could be part of that family and, at least once, experience a giant, crazy family celebration.

I understand why people immigrate or move across the country. I really do and I don’t blame them, I understand that they want a better life, richer opportunties for themselves and their children.  But, as they know very well, there’s a cost to breaking away from the tribe, too.  I’m sure this is why many immigrants live and socialize in a tight circle of fellow immigrants – to create a substitute tribe for themselves. I think people need that connection of familiarity.

I believe I would have become a very different person if I’d grown up surrounded by the glorious insanity of a large, extended family. I think I would have been better at relationships, more sociable, not so restless. And I think I would have had a very different relationship with my parents and siblings if I hadn’t spent my formative years in enforced togetherness and isolation with them.

Of course I also would never have had many of the opportunties I’ve had as a Canadian. My life would have been quite different — and I don’t come from a 3rd world country and/or a country with an oppressive, human-rights violating  government. So, to be clear, I applaud those brave people who leave everything and everyone they’ve ever known to give their children a better life.

I told Guillermo that I wanted to pursue this topic and see how other people felt. Maybe I’m just goofy. Lots of people have told me their circle of friends is more of a family to them than their family ever was.

Did you grow up with or without an extended family? Was it good or bad? How do you think the absence or presence of an extended family shaped your life?