Then, I reread holiday messages and look at the pictures one more time. This year, in the mail basket on the porch, I will find Christmas cards from the children whose photographs once graced their parents’ greetings, those who are now parents themselves.
The holiday tradition of a family Christmas card eluded mine until this year. Then we had a wedding in May, and, lo and behold, there were photographs to tell its story. Snapshots of cousins, aunts, uncles and new kin have been reduced to card stock, to be stuffed into envelopes, wishing friends a Happy New Year.
In a new definition of togetherness, we became a “blended” group at the wedding, two families, joined together. Our son married a lovely woman with two grown children. He has daughters, 15 and 16.
We stepped out of the Norman Rockwell painting of one mother, wearing an apron, and one father in a faded work shirt, together until death do them part.
But our band of family members is a mere understudy in the world of relationship possibilities. Today’s commitments list same-sex parents, couples who live together, rear each other’s children, but prefer not to marry, others who find happiness after two former tries at legalized love and those who sign on as voluntary kin, new roles of friends, cohabitating with rights given through wills and the possibility of adopting one another.
As a nation, we have moved past our preconceived notions of traditional relationships and enlarged our emotional boundaries to include life with a sweep of religious and ethnic choices, racial preferences and economic diversity.
To quote from an article on the changing American family: “Blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women, women. Democrats marry Republicans … and good friends join forces, sharing medical directives.”
Yet 41 percent of this country’s children are born with no marriage certificate stashed in the family Bible. Forty percent of young mothers have college courses under their belts, life experiences beyond their neighborhoods, but are unmarried when their first babies are born.
These are not teenage girls from tough backgrounds, looking for a new start. Most are in their 20s and early 30s and about one-fourth live with a partner who sometimes is, sometimes isn’t the biological father of the mother’s child.
It’s a paradox. We hold up “family as the foundation of American life,” (a message from Bill Clinton,) but we struggle to define it. We let go of the patriarchal roles of men when 40 percent of American women went forth into the workplace. Many are now counted as their families’ primary breadwinners.
Women as providers and men as back-up nurturers at home are a new normal. Steel magnolias may not need marriage for security, (even alimony is being phased out) but their emotional expectations of marriage are greater than ever before, no longer buried under a pile of laundry.
For many of us, the holidays include sharing a meal or a visit with family, a term no longer bound to blood relations, but one calling on us to practice the patience of devotion, tolerating differing political views and football loyalties.
We count on family to love us in spite of ourselves. My grandfather, a force of nature, was not an easy or affectionate man. When politics or baseball scores did not suit him, he grumbled: “Well, the world’s gone off and left me.”
He meant HIS world. The world of star-filled skies and endless sunsets went right on spinning, through war and loss, through storms and illness. Relationships failed and flourished. The lesson learned? Take nothing for granted.
Our family Christmas greetings are a collage of snapshots: A bride and groom, a cousin wearing a crab hat, a proud grandfather. Three generations, happy on the same day. I’m framing the card!
Judy Elliott is an award-winning writer in Marietta.