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Bringing Up Mommy: Family defines who you are

It is the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. I am awake in the quiet comfort of my sister’s home, 700 miles from mine. And while the rest of the household, including a gaggle of cousins, sleeps in, I find myself reflecting on the life and story of Chris McCandless, about whom the 2007 film “Into the Wild” was made.

McCandless, who at 23 died alone of starvation and poisoning in the Alaskan wilderness, left his family and friends to seek happiness in solitude – only to scribble in the margins of a book three weeks before he died, “Happiness only real when shared.” I have not been so extreme in my thinking, or my actions. But, like so many of us seeking happiness, fulfillment and success, I left home for college. I got one job and then another and then married and bore children with a man whose work as a university professor would take us, state-by-state, farther and farther away from my nuclear family.

To be sure, during my years as a young mother and professional, I talked often on the phone with my family and traveled the 1,100 miles to visit every year or two. It was not the same as having them next door, of course, or even in a neighboring town, and the missing was never so pronounced as when the children were young. I didn’t crave others’ boats or big houses or cars. I craved their grandparents.

Still, like McCandless, I tried not to need my family’s daily, physical presence in my life.

I tried to be strong and mentally well-adjusted and everything my children needed. I tried to live into McCandless-esque independence, to “bloom where I was planted,” like the mythologist Joseph Campbell says. I tried to have a grounded presence in each new community of strangers, to ignore my insecurities, to not long for my family’s help forging my emerging new identity as adult and mother. I tried not to complain to those around me, but to see myself as a sophisticated, modern citizen of the world, happily creating extended family with soccer communities, schools, churches and neighborhoods.

But there comes a time in most adults’ lives, when enough years have passed and enough alternatives have been attempted, that our lives are no longer about the masks we try to hide behind and the stories we try to rewrite.

On this Thanksgiving trip, from my home in northeast Ohio to the home of my younger sister, her husband and her two teenage daughters in Memphis, Tenn., I heard the familiar, familial cadence of my sister’s voice, and I found myself falling into it. I saw the easy physical affection among the cousins, and I knew after all these years of trying that there really is nothing to replace these relationships. I watched the upturned faces of my children talking to my sister, their aunt, and I seized on the power of the unconditional love being passed to them. Only, for once, I was not the one giving it.

In these small moments, in these late years of motherhood, I came to see how much of my grasping has been misinformed. It was not sophistication, better friends or even greater mental health I needed. It was the familiarity of family, as much of it as possible. We talk often in this day and age about being members of a global community. We teach our children they can go anywhere and do anything. To that end, about a million college graduates move across state lines every year – adding to the 40 million Americans across all demographics who move annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But while a Pew Social & Demographic Trends survey finds that most Americans have moved to a new community at least once in their lives, about 40 percent have never left the place where they were born. The reasons they cite: Family. Belonging. Connections.

What we need to at least consider, as we are helping direct our children, and as we continue to direct our own lives, is that family is not some schmaltzy concept made up by some sniffling mother trying to keep her children close. “Family is not just a word,” says actor and author Abhishek Tiwari. “It’s who you are, where you came from and where you will always belong.” I don’t know why it took me all these many years to see this so absolutely. What I do know is that my sister and our families fell in together this Thanksgiving like pieces of a missing puzzle. It is a puzzle of human wholeness and connection not easily assembled basis in this mobile world. But at least I feel certain now where the pieces are.