Sharon Randall

What is a family? Why does it matter? What does it teach us that we can’t learn on our own?

Is a family a group of people we belong to by birth, or one that we intentionally choose?

Those are questions we might ask any time of year, but they seem especially relevant in the holiday season — Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year’s — when it is often our tradition to gather as families and celebrate together.

For some of us, those gatherings are joyous occasions. For others, they’re more like “Home Alone,” or “Scrooged.”

My mother was one of 12 children. Ten survived childhood, one boy and nine girls. As they grew up and married and had children of their own, most of them lived near enough to gather for holidays at my grandparents’ home in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.

Christmas gifts were minimal, to say the least. I don’t recall getting much from “Santa.” Mostly what I remember is the sense of belonging, of being part of something that assured me I was loved, and not alone.

I delighted in the bedlam of laughing and playing and fighting with my crazy cousins.

Watching my granddad and my uncles sit on the porch, rain or shine, smoking and joking, arguing about politics, trying to solve the problems of the world.

Listening to my grandmother and my mother and her sisters stir pots on the stove and talk about their lives and hopes and dreams and disappointments, and gossip about any sister who failed to show up.

The food was always plentiful — country ham, sweet potatoes, green beans and biscuits and my grandmother’s banana pudding. I ate it all. It was good. But for me, it was never the highlight.

The highlight was simply being together. A family.

I must tell you, with all respect, we were not always the most pleasant of people.

Some drank too much. Not visibly, but on the sly. We always knew who’d had one nip too many. It wasn’t hard to tell.

Others smoked too much or complained too much or had nothing good to say or were impossible to please, or to like.

I’m sure no one in your family is ever like that. But a few in mine were. I wonder what they’d say about me?

It’s too late to ask them. They’re all gone now. My parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles have left this world for the next. My cousins are scattered here and there.

And yet the memories linger, along with the love that we shared. You don’t have to be in the same room with someone to know they still love you.

I treasure those memories and the things they taught me:

• That families aren’t perfect, but they prepare us to find our way in an imperfect world.

• That they give us memories, good and bad, including some we’ll laugh at when we’re old.

• That we may think they’re crazy, but one day we’ll realize that all families are crazy in their own peculiar ways.

My husband and I are in the process of growing a new family, while retaining, of course, the surviving members of the families we’ve come from.

Our new, blended family includes our five combined children, four of their spouses and eight grandchildren, ages 9 years to 7 months.

Most of us were together for Thanksgiving. Some of us will be together for Christmas.

Family is not just the people we’re born to. It’s a beautiful blend of kindness and traditions and nurture and friendships we bring to it year after year.

I hope this holiday season will fill you with lovely memories of the family that raised you, and surround you with all the people who mean “family” to you now. May it be the happiest and most blessed time you’ve ever shared.

(Sharon Randall can be reached at P.O. Box 416, Pacific Grove, Calif. 93950 or on her website: www.sharonrandall.com.)

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