Photography by Devon Butler
Family is a concept I have never “gotten.” There was no light bulb inside my head that went off at one point or another and left me feeling totally secure in myself and “my family.” I’ve never felt particularly illuminated about the notion of family. It’s abstract and almost always out of reach. It is this grand idealistic, dreamy support system that I have never known.
In terms of divisions and classifications, yes, I do have a family. I have cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and so many more people that have formed this circle around my life. To me, that’s not a family. It’s hard, mean and obligatory. This family is from a catalogue. It’s not real. They tell each other lies under the guise of “This is for your own good” and “You are better to be seen and not heard.” Maybe this is just what I have come to know from these people; these relatives. That in itself is a tricky idea because I feel in no wayrelated to them. I live in a city and support choices that were whispered about decades ago and they live in a hamlet where those choices should remain as whispers. Somehow, in the midst of all of this mess, I formed a family. I formed what I think is a family.
Let me tell you about my family.
My family is a great big tree. The cliché of this is not at all lost on me. Instead of following the branches to see where they go and how they have informed me as a person, I traced the veins in the bark with my fingertips and found myself at the roots. I have two thick roots at the base of this tree and they are the most solid things I have ever gripped. Believe me: I haven’t always treated this tree with the kind of respect and care it deserves. Somewhere in-between the earth-shattering heartache that was growing up and getting my life together, I sat next to this tree and whispered all of my deepest, darkest secrets, knowing that it was finally time to say all of the things I never could.
My roots braid together and spiral into a solid trunk, forming a lush and old tree. The branches of the tree aren’t people connected to me but experiences and memories that bring me back to my roots. Each root is vastly different from the other. The oldest root is my mother. She is warm and kind and wears her struggles on her sleeve. There is something so heartbreaking in knowing there are invisible marks along her beautiful skin but having to watch her fight to live in a harsh, hard world. She is weary but moves along and loves fiercely. The youngest root is lighter, tender but strong. They are both so strong. This root is my sister. She anchors the rest of the tree with a stark stoicism that is a rarity to find. Her eyes are quiet but can say so much without really saying anything at all. She has my heart in her hands and knows, in spite of all the destruction I did to tear this root from the ground so long ago, her happiness now is the only thing that matters to me.
From what I understand about family, the very basic idea is love: to love and be loved by another person and for them be a sanctuary to help you survive living. Love doesn’t always happen that way though, but this is what we want, right? Instead of fighting and forgetting what we fought about, we tell jokes to one another. We laugh until our bellies are sore and throats so hoarse no sane thoughts can be formed or expressed. We talk until the sun turns into the moon and back to day once more. We rest upon one another when everything gets so heavy and can barely move, holding everyone together because that is just what you do. We do it because we want to, not because we have to.
My family is so small but I like it that way. I don’t know how to exist around the people I am related to. We’re aliens to one another. Their family is different from mine. They see me and figure that based upon some scientific data I must be family. Our blood and genetic make-up may be similar, we may have the same bone structure in our nose, but this is not a family.
You both loved me but I loved you more. And that’s what a family is; what my family is.
Sarah MacDonald has been a Blueprint contributor since 2009. She is Editor-in-Chief of Fine Cut, a film and television industry magazine.