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?

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37 responses to “Family Ties

  1. I can relate to this topic even though I’m not an immigrant. I was forced to give up my mom’s side of the family when I was made to move south with my crazy aunt in 1974. I was cut off from the cousins I had grown up with and my aunts and uncles. I also was forced to give up contact with my brother who chose to stay in Michigan. My crazy aunt made sure she said derogatory things about the relatives I left behind but I always ignored her when she did it. I’ve gotten back in touch with some of them via email and Facebook and it’s been wonderful getting to know some of them again. Alas, my brother seems to think I am still the 10 year old kid I was when we last lived together and he treats me like he did when we were kids so I don’t have much use for him now but it’s been a joy getting back in touch with others from Michigan.

  2. I was thinking of so many things to say here and then remembered your rule of thumb: If it seems like the comment will be too long, just make it a post and link back. Besides I already had a group photo of my cousins sitting out to do a post and this ties in perfectly.

    I’m sorry you had no extended family, but maybe after hearing others’ stories, you won’t think it’s a big deal after all.

  3. Both of my parents are from huge families, and although many of the relatives on both sides stayed in the prairies, there was till a whole herd who made it out to BC. So I grew up with lots and lots of interaction with aunts, uncles and cousins around my age. Yet, as an adult, I rarely see all that extended family. Being around a lot of people for an extended period of time annoys me and I need to leave and have some alone time. Connection? Maybe. But it’s still nice to know that they’re out there and that we do share a lot of memories, along with the genetic material.

  4. I’m the opposite of Pinklea. Both my parents were only children, which meant I didn’t have any aunts, uncles or cousins. Not only that, but our family totally embraced the concept of divorce LONG before it was fashionable, so I ended up with only one parent and one grandparent.

    More family would have been better. Definitely.

  5. My parents divorced when I was young. Then, when I was 10, they both took off to different parts of the country, My sister and I were left with my maternal grandparents for 5 years with no extended family in the area.

    The circumstances certainly shaped my life for the better — I sought long-term stability and security.

    On the other hand, I think my sister was very adversely impacted. She survived, but her kids ended up with the same type of childhood. She went through several marriages and had issues with substance abuse. Finally, in her early 50s, she settled down and is in a stable marriage.

  6. Dr. Monkey – That would be even worse — having known and lived with a family and then being separated from them. At least I was too young to remember. And thank goodness for the miracle of Facebook, eh?

    Geewits – It’s not a “rule” really, it was just a suggestion of how to generate ideas for blog posts. I don’t mind how long comments get, but I’m glad this post via Guilllermo’s post was able to spark your post! (Kind of like TV spin-offs). I’m looking forward to reading yours and ya, the whole extended family thing seems to be a “grass is always greener on the other side” thing, maybe.

    Pinklea – Oh, I like lots of alone time, too, but it WOULD be nice to know there’s close by and that you could get together with them a few times a year for big events. I bet you go to all the weddings and funerals and special birthdays and anniversaries and stuff, don’t you? I don’t mean I’d like to live in the pockets of an entire huge family day in and day out, just that it would be nice to have relatives around.

    Zoom – “our family totally embraced the concept of divorce LONG before it was fashionable” ha ha. That must be where you get your trend-setting flair from. Does GC have a big family? Maybe you could get them to adopt you?

    Mike – That’s interesting because it seems to have had similar impacts on my siblings. The boys all got married young and had kids and the girls not so much. Maybe we’ll settle down and become stable later on in life, too??

  7. My dad was in the air force, so like you, for a long time it was just us at all those “family” celebrations. Aunts, uncles, cousins were just people I’d see during summer vacation when we’d come to Quebec. And it was a helluva lot of people to absorb (dad had 11 siblings, mom had 6).

    I never got close to my cousins, but honestly, those of them who lived in close proximity weren’t that close either. I know several of my cousins live in Montreal, but if we passed each other in the street we’d probably never recognize each other. They’re strangers to me and in all honesty I don’t “miss” them. I’m one of those people for whom my friends are my family.

  8. my mom’s folks/brother lived nearby and i never really connected with them or my cousins. my dad’s folks and siblings were in scotland and my sibs and i just ADORED them. letters flying back and forth, tape recordings being sent here and there. we were lucky enough to be able to visit scotland often enough, and my grandparents also came here fairly regularly – we saw each other annually and it was a love fest.
    i will remember your post at xmas time when i am complaining about entertaining jo’s mom at our house (she’s single), going to my parents house (10 minutes away) to see my brother, sister, mom and dad and then heading to the cottage to see jo’s dad and stepmom, brothers (2), his sister and all the little offspring they have (4). it’s a busy time of year but there is no lack of love and there is always a lot of laughs with a little bit of drama for good measure (which just makes for good gossip later on).

  9. I have eight brothers and sisters and we have produced 22 offspring. Add my mother to the count along with the spouses and the new little grands and there are now 51 of us . . .

    In less than than 2 weeks I’m moving back to the city of my birth and to where my mother and four of my five brothers still live. Talk to me at Christmas when I’m person number 32 in the buffet line . . . and, yes, glorious insanity is a good description.

  10. Need to add that the person who values this family more than any of the rest of us is a brother-in-law who is an orphan and only. He wouldn’t even use the ‘in law’ phrase; as far as he’s concerned we’re his brothers and sisters.

  11. Vonnegut said in several of his books that he thought the loss of the extended family was one of the real problems in North America.
    Aunts, uncles and grandparents to go to when your parents were going nuts.
    Sisters and brothers for the parent to go to when the spouse was driving them nuts.
    Siblings to calm down abusive parents or spouses. We are losing all this.
    Then again we are also losing abusive uncles and some of the greatest grudges known to mankind.
    Like you, my extended family was over the water and I loved meeting them but they were never around enough to get stale and bothersome.

  12. i grew up very close to the cousins on one side and not to the other side. the degrees of closeness didn’t seem to have as much to do with how often we saw them as it did how much we liked each other as people, and what our parent’s relationships to their own families were like.

    i still see the cousins from one side more than the other. i only have space in my life for so many relationships, so naturally the weaker ones will suffer or just die a natural sort of death. i have friends that i met in my 20s who feel like family today, they’ve sort of taken the place in my heart that could have been for cousins. but there are loads – nine on each side – and we’d have to rent a grange hall or something now to get everyone and all their kids together in the same place anymore.

    i was thinking about this very topic last night at a birthday party. the newly-five-year-old was running riot with her friends, and it was an evening party, the kind where the parents all come along and stay and the women sort of gather and chat and the guys sort of chase after the kids or yawp in the yard or whatever, and i didn’t know anyone there all that well (except the family with the birthday girl) and just was kind of in a non-social mood for other reasons, but i eventually sat sort of out of the way and just enjoyed the chatter and chaos of being in that place, with these people who all love each other kind of swirling around, and it was really nice. i just loved it. fond memories, for sure.

  13. Both JG and I grew up in our parents’ home communities with big extended families. JG’s father was one of thirteen children and JG can’t keep track of his first cousins. Extended family that big has very litte value for him. He used to want to strangle his father, who would meet a relative on the street when they were together and say, “Now, J, you remember who this is.” J didn’t.
    My extended family is smaller and I highly valued time with aunts and grandparents; I have posts about this. However, there is a downside. I have a cousin five years younger whom I constantly had to look after at all family gatherings; she grew up to believe that I was the go to person whenever she has a problem and calls me to help her at frequent intervals for really petty stuff as well as the big ones like a hostile divorce situation. When she was five and I was ten I considered strangling her, as I recall. I haven’t really changed my mind.

  14. XUP, I too have linked back to you on today and tomorrow’s post. Things I could not say on those posts were that it made a huge difference as a child but I have grown to learn that people are not to be trusted and you cannot pick your relatives so why would you want to spend time with people who you would NEVER be friends with.

    My sister is a self-avowed, quote: “bigot and proud of it.” I have detested her husband since I was ten. Most of the good people on dad’s side are dead. The next generation, dislike the President for his color.

    Mom’s side had arrogant one, lieing alcoholic one, liar one and good woman. The good woman was woefully outnumbered.

    Husband has a large family, that in so many ways I am sick to the gills of.

    Stick with your friends. They will be there for you. They know you better than family ever cared to.

  15. One word that seems to be missing here is community. What people really need and want is community and connection. Family is often an easy way to have that ready made, but it doesn’t always work so well. I bet you have a lot of community already in your life Xup, and a big family would likely detract from or at least complicate that.

    My family is relatively (sic) small on both sides. We had the early divorce (in the early 60s, also before it was fashionable) and the general pattern seems to be that no one in the family has any interest in keeping close to anyone else. This was also true of my kid’s dad’s family. Now we live far from everyone and I can see that the kids want more connections and community. Often I do too. I don’t think that family is necessarily the best way to find that but its one of the easiest. Our culture doesn’t have a lot of easy pathways to connectivity. If I could, I would live closer to the other family members for the sake of the kids.

  16. Hey XUP – we did the opposite – kinda. We left Canada to work in the U.S, then Germany – taking the kids away from Grandparents and family. They were able to get back once in awhile, but really – this was one of the biggest reasons we moved back – to be closer to family again, and have the kids grow up where they belong.
    I know this is not the same thing as leaving a horribly oppressed third world country to strike out in hopes of better days, but really – just recognizing that we’re lucky enough that we can go home again, be around family and friends AND be in a great place.
    But the kids sure did miss everyone when they were away!

  17. Jazz – Well,that’s kind of sad, but it’s the same for my cousins over in the old country. They all live in the same town but never see each other.

    Meanie – Exactly. It’s like the immediate family, but multiplied by 5 or 10 or 20 or whatever. Some you’ll get along with great, some not so much. But it always makes you feel part of something greater than yourself and, I think, when it’s all over, it makes you appreciate your own little immediate family a little more.

    Grace – I envy you. A Christmas buffet line of 51 — man that would be cool – and they’re all related somehow. Have a great move!

    Bandobras – Well, if Vonnegut said it, then it must be true. I think he’s got a point though. Not only in the examples you give, but in a lot of other ways. It’s good to have a larger group of people with some sort of vested interest to share both your joys and your sorrows.

    Hallie – So, do you wish you’d been a more intimate part of that big gathering or one like it or were you perfectly content to be on the periphery?

    Mary – Well, I never said you have to love everyone in your family. That’s not possible most of the time. I would suggest though that both you and your husband find more legal ways to deal with your frustrating relatives than strangulation.

    Savanvleck – Well now. That’s certainly a different perspective. And yes, I can see that if you come from a horrible family that you’d much rather spend time with your friends. I guess I was assuming that most families have combinations of good people and not so good people.

    Gokalie – Yes, you’re right, I think. Most of us need community. Kids more than adults I think. Kids like to know where they belong and to whom. I think it helps them to understand interpersonal relationships, grounds them, helps them feel connected, part of something. I don’t know.

    Ian – Ya, like I said to Gokalie, I think the kids miss and need the extended family more than grown-ups do. The main reason we moved back to Ontario, too was so that my daughter could spend more time with her cousins, grandma, uncles, aunts. She really enjoys it too and when we haven’t been for a while nags me to organize a visit.

  18. I think it’s part of the “grass is always greener” syndrome, which is allied with the “good old days” syndrome. But I agree with Gokalie that what we long for is community and significantly good relationships with others. So whether your family was large or small, if you had significantly good relationships with some people, you look on those days fondly and benefited from them. If you didn’t have those significant relationships however, it didn’t matter about the size of the family, you longed for the relationship. What you longed for (and I too) was a mentor but we never had one. While I refuse to have regrets about the life that has gone past, not having a mentor-type person has left a gap. What to do about it is another question.

    Sorry about my cryptic comments last time – yes, it was “yay” that P. was not a dork.

  19. Another thought-provoking post! My folks moved across the province to be closer to us when my son was born, and we all agree that we’re all the better for it. But, my mom’s mother lived in the same house as us for maybe eight years or so when I was growing up, and even though I loved it, my folks hated it. So, there’s good-close and too-close, I think. Having my folks a 15 minute walk away from our house is a gift that for which I’m always grateful, even when they’re grating on my nerves.

  20. I think memories of coming from a large brood of people depends on how close you are in character, personality, yada, yada, yada, to the others in the brood. I want to say that family is overrated, but it really isn’t. There is something really awesome about having people in the world that have the same blood running through their veins as you do and I think when we are detached from them it is like a piece of you is always missing.

  21. My father had nothing to do with his family for many, many years, and I may have oodles of cousins I know nothing about. I used to care deeply about that, but finally gave up. My mother had one sister who she left behind in Scotland when she moved here and that side of the family has always been so important to me (all of us – except my father, who wasn’t really into families, I guess). I have visited those three cousins more than a dozen times since our first trip overseas in 1972. I could count on one hand the number of times they have come this way to see any of us. But then, they all have each other and are close enough to at least speak on the phone weekly and visit several times a year even though they live in different countries now. It is that closeness I really miss. The sense of connectedness – the shared stories. Holiday dinners with just the four of us was really nothing special, no matter how much we tried to make it so.

  22. Julia – I agree about not having regrets. What was, was and what is, is. And yes, it probably is a bit of ‘grass is always greener”, but so far in the comments there aren’t a lot of people complaining about growing up as part of a large extended family. Or maybe those people are all too busy with their large extended family to read blogs.

    Dani – Ha ha – yes family is usually much easier to love when they’re not living on top of you…close enough to see regularly, but not so close that you have to see them all the time whether you want to or not.

    Cedar – I do believe you’re right yet again. Of course family can also hurt you and drive you crazy more than any other people in the world, but in the end they are still the people with whom you share not only blood, but ancestry – a history going way, way back. That’s kind of cool.

    Violetsky – I know. Those sad little family Christmases were somehow worse because we tried to make them festive than if we’d just pretended it was any other day. And the sad thing is now that the family has grown a bit with some of us having spouses and/or kids no one wants to spend the holidays together anymore. They all go to the in-laws for Christmas because they have a whole big, brood-filled dinner there.

  23. I don’t speak to or visit my siblings very often and I actually like them. 😉 I had the benefit of having one grandmother that I got to see regularly growing up, and I wish now I’d paid more attention to visits with her and her generation while they were here as I miss them all dearly now. I’m not sure I’d miss my cousins or aunts/uncles and that says it all right there — the only one I miss is the one I never got to meet. My living cousins and aunts and uncles are virtual strangers and really always have been.

  24. Hey XUP, I totally relate to the longing for a big, extended family. I grew up in Spain with a Dominican dad and a Spanish mom, by dad’s family being huge but on the other side of the Atlantic, my mom’s family being much smaller, and particularly small for Spanish standards -two uncles and four cousins, my grandparents passed away when I was pretty young–. Anyways, when I had my first visit to the DR when I was 8 a whole world opened up for me –my dad has 7 brothers and sisters, more than half of them married more than once and had children in every marriage/relationship, so I have some 40 Dominican cousins nowadays, so I might have half of that or something, don’t know precisely to be honest, by the time I was 8. We spent like a month there and when we came back home to Madrid I felt such a loneliness, such a longing for family… I’m still convinced that big families, as crazy as they can get, are super healthy for people to grow up in, generally speaking.

  25. I guess loved and lost is sort of theme on this end. We moved to Ottawa from the extended family in New Brunswick when I was 7. I still vividly remember the big family dinners at the cottage, with uncles and aunts and the cousins and all that. We still had the get-togethers but they were less frequent.. if no less joyous.

    Now, well, family is the reasons we live here in Ottawa… everyone’s here. The grandparents appreciates the kids nearby… and they have the kind of relationship we never had with ours.

  26. When I was young we lived near family and had the big family get together’s at holidays. I must admit it was great. I remember one year for my birthday my Uncle bought me a t-shirt that said “If Mom says no, ask Grandma”. That was the honest truth, my Grandma’s house was my safe haven and I was her favorite. When I was in high school if I was bored or lonely I drove over to Grandma’s. My Mother worked nearby and had lunch at Grandma’s everyday. The only funeral I remember was chock-a-block full of family members, I was 9 so I didn’t even realize we had that much extended family. As I got older and my family drifted to other states and the older ones died, everything changed. I don’t feel I have much of an extended family now and I do miss it sometimes. I didn’t even leave the country, I just moved to the other side, but you’d think it was the dark side of the moon for as often as I hear from some of those people. I don’t think you romanticized it, I think a big extended family is a wonderful thing even when they’re driving you nuts.

  27. Louise – My daughter talks to her grandmother on the phone every Sunday come hell or high water. She used to love her phone time with Oma. Now she has to be reminded and coerced into making the call because she has better things to do , but she does it. Your comment reminds me why I make such a big deal out of it.

    Cristina – Hola! You should look those cousins up. You’re not so far away from the DR anymore! Some of them have probably even made their way to Florida by now.

    Nat – Ah yes, there’s nothing like a maritime party! They didn’t all move to Ottawa did they?

    Charlene – Now you’re making me cry. Actually everyone is. I had sort of hoped that it was a “grass is always greener” thing, but it’s pretty obvious that growing up with a big extended family (unless they were all totally insane) was just as wonderful as I imagined it would be. Dammit…but, lucky, lucky you!

  28. I’m going to post about this today, too. It’ll be up shortly. I just wanted to say here that I loved meanie’s comment about appreciating the family during this year’s usual Christmas runaround. I thought that was a lovely idea and I’m going to try to keep a positive attitude this year, too!

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  30. Lynn – Yay!! I feel like a ghost of Christmas yet to come or something inspiring everyone to enjoy their family holiday!! I’m looking forward to reading your post on this, too.

  31. Gah, you hit on the weak spot of my deep seated desire to emigrate! Mind you, I suspect I am less bothered about being geographically close to my family because when I was growing up, my father worked abroad in Saudi Arabia so I am kind of used to separation, at least physically.

  32. Wow XUP! I’m really astonished with the stories I’ve triggered with the post. I’m so surprised but, at the same time, so happy! This is why blogging is so wonderful… it does not matter the language you use, it will not be a barrier to reach others and their feelings.

    You see? It means I do not need a blog in English! 😉

    Have a great day to you all!

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  34. XUP — big old kitchen parties and deck parties. It’s like little food goes a long long way… no many of them are still there. Sadly all my cousins have dispersed now… Lobsters from the guy on the dock…

    I wonder if it’s a generational thing. (Maybe an economic one too.)

  35. I cried when I read the former post on the Ziegler’s place… today I found your place and I am crying again. I always knew only my mother’s side family and it is a huge family… my mother is the second of eleven children… and although many of us live in different corners of the planet, we are always close at the distance of the phone, the email or the facebook… I never met my father, and I just met my grandmother and my aunty once on my lifetime. Last year, I have virtually (internet/phone) met them some of my father’s side family, I mean, cousins, half-brothers, half-sisters, nephews and nieces… and in “vivo y en directo” met my father and few of my cousins…. since then I have begin to build a family relation that makes me happy, although it is not in the same intensity of my mother’s side family relations. What a contradictory life could be, I live in the same country with my just found family and the ones I have stronger ties with, they live outside of this country… I miss all of them so much…

    My kids miss so much my mother’s family side and are not in the best willing to build relations with my father and his family… that makes me sad… I love the idea to enjoy the time I have to share with my father too…

  36. I have a huge extended family – both maternal and paternal – I think it got to the point where there were too many people so it was completely unmanageable. I rarely saw anyone, asides from at the big occasions, at which you didn’t really have much to talk about except matter-of-factly reciting the details of things that had transpired since you provided your last update … then repeat a dozen times for each aunt and uncle who decided to sit next to you at some point. I think it is probably a case of ‘the grass is greener’. I appreciate my family much more now that I’m not overwhelmed by the herd. Then again, maybe that’s just me? Family is a tricky topic … no matter what.

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