Posts Tagged ‘family of choice’

There is no time of the year that I am as aware of my shortage of family of origin as I am at the holidays. This is what some of us were raised with, right? Holidays are about family. Old songs extoll traveling long miles over snowy roads to be with family for that special holiday dinner and go to great lengths to depict our innate drive to avoid going back out on those snowy roads and sit with the love of our lives in front of a roaring fire.  Churches plan elaborate services at different times to celebrate with congregation members. This is the message repeated through the years. This is how we handle holidays.

This expectation has evolved a bit since my coming out days. At that time, family of choice was key. It had to be. Many of us had been thrown out of our homes, cut off from the families that brought us into the world. We survived by creating other family structures of mentors and dear friends, those people who could and would nurture us, gentle us, soothe the scorching loss so many of us experienced while parents and siblings wrestled with their own demons related to our orientation or gender identity.

Evolved, yes, but certainly not gone. And unfortunately, seeming to ramp up in ways I haven’t seen in twenty years, making me question what our new generation of young queerlings will do to build in their own structures of support.

In terms of my own structure of support, I’ve said numerous times over the past few years that I “family” differently than most people. I have found that a lot of folks don’t quite understand what that means.  Sadly, I’ve also found that a lot of folks whom I thought would understand because they’d come to know me well actually had no idea what it meant. That may end up being a post on another day.

I sat with a copy of Urban Tidepool on the table between a friend and myself this week and observed it again. “I family differently than most people.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tapped the cover of the coil bound book. “I don’t think it is possible to have these experiences and go on to family in a typical sense.”  I poked at the small child figure in the graphic.  “Look at this. I was this big when my mother died. Like…two inches tall.”  I held my fingers two inches apart in front of my eye for emphasis and peeked at her between them.  “Speaking developmentally, because you know I love all that developmental stuff, it’s not possible that THAT person could understand the changes that were about to happen and what it would mean to how I relate to family.”

She nodded, taking my point. “No, a kid that young isn’t able to do that.”

“All that kid is capable of is missing their mommy.”

There. I’d said it.  I’ve never put it into that context. Even when I wrote the chapters about the mother’s death and the three ring circus that followed, I’ve never spoken in plain words about being that kid, especially being that kid who missed their mommy. As a family, we never acknowledged it to each other that I recall. The game plan was always to keep acting as if everything was fine.

I’ve known for decades that things were not really fine. How could they have been?  I’m aware of the void left by her death, and then his, and the gap that exists where most people have parents, even many people my own age (which is sometimes a surprise to me that people my age still have parents).  As I have aged, the gap has worn larger, what memories I do have have softened and blurred until eventually I realized I have difficulty producing an independent image of her. There is longing….the gap DID have someone standing in it at one time…but the longing is now associated with gap rather than with image.  It is an odd combination, this longing for a person I barely remember, one that leaves me less enthusiastic about holidays than the average bear. The dread of Christmas begins to build immediately after Thanksgiving. It is a dark, foot-dragging time that peaks on Christmas Eve when I am so miserable I am unfit for human companionship and breaks about 2 pm Christmas afternoon, when I realize it’s done for another year and I can just go about my life again without the intense pressure, without the constant reminder that holiday time is coming and here are the things other people are doing with their families.

In 1973, getting through the first Christmas after the mother’s loss was nothing short of surreal. In the days before Christmas, it felt like we were moving through some Twilight Zone universe, going through motions that we’d always done, but we were hollow. It was supposed to be the most joyful time of year—at least that’s what all the old songs told us.

Over the years, I’ve figured out how to manage the obligation of Christmas joy that I don’t feel without bringing down everyone around me. I keep things low key to soothe that two-inch tall, gender neutral kid who feels like they’re living through a Twilight Zone episode. This year, I will call my sister, and then the day will probably include Die Hard movies, Gremlins, and maybe some Harry Potter and popcorn.  Well, maybe some Harry Potter. Definitely some popcorn.

As an aside, is anyone else intrigued by the fact that the only two Christmas movies that speak to me are called Die Hard and Gremlins? I’m sure that can’t be coincidence!

Anyway…that gap does soften and blur memory of people but I haven’t found that it actually does anything to soothe the memory of being without them. That’s a curious thing to me.

An excerpt from Urban Tidepool, Downward Spiral:

On a dreary mid-December afternoon, Michael and I cleaned the living and dining room and dragged the Christmas decorations out of the old storage trunk in the cellar. The nativity scene with the clay figures that the mother had painted and glued into place was stationed at its post on top of the TV that I polished with lemon Pledge.  We tried to hang things where the mother would have put them. We went through a mountain of tape sticking things to the front windows, now streaked with half-circles precisely the length of my arms, like the mother would have done. Well, maybe she wouldn’t have left so many streaks, but I was proud of the way I hung backwards out the window ten feet above the ground to get the outside clean. Across the street in Mr. Aubrey’s cellar window, his annual miniature train scene whirred on tiny tracks through a festive tiny village, weaving from one pane to the next, then back again. Almost every house on the street blinked shades of red and green. Some things were the same. But nothing was the same.

 We all have some gaps. We will all reach those points where some things are the same but nothing will ever be the same again. It is a normal part of aging and families growing and changing. My goal this year is to be gentle with that gap and see if I can get through Christmas Eve while still being fit for human companionship. It will be a first for me. Just consider me the Un-Spirit of Christmas.  If you’re around the neighborhood, Die Hard starts at 2 and the popcorn will be on and I’ll be hanging out with the dogs and my gap. Maybe I’ll even put the old manger out. Dress code, comfy. Bring your own gaps if you wish. We’ll be gentle with all of them.

Whatever your holiday, whatever your traditions, whatever your holiday traditions, may you celebrate in peace and kindness and may the people whom you love light up your path for our coming new year.






“Ohana means family. Family means nobody is left behind or forgotten.”

Simultaneous truths can be difficult to grasp, especially since we are engineered from the time we are tiny people to buy into binary systems on lots of topics. If we believe Point A, then we must not believe Point B. What happens at those times when Point A and Point B are both true for us?

I’ve wondered many times about my own experience of “family” since starting to write Urban Tidepool. It being a subjective experience, there’s no way to know how it compares to other people’s experiences of “family”, of having family and being with family. I wonder how other people attach or not, commit or not, process that movement from the outer social circle of acquaintance to the inner circle of being considered family of choice.  I assume people do that differently than I do, at least the processing part.

On a broader scale, I’ve wondered about and dabbled in researching how orphans experience family later in life. In the mental health field, we now have the ACE test that encourages clinicians to consider the later-in-life physical health implications of childhood trauma.  Most of the information that I’ve found so far on the later-in-life effects of growing up without parents focus on kids in orphanages in third world countries—certainly a respectable topic that warrants research but nothing that fits what I’m looking for.

Oddly, the comment that stands out the most for me is from a Disney movie. Well, for folks who have met me and actually watched Disney movies with me, it probably isn’t odd or any big surprise.  The comment above, from Lilo and Stitch, comes from a bittersweet scene in which Lilo clutches a photo of her deceased parents and makes that statement to Stitch in her efforts to attach to him and to have him attach to her, suggesting that she is recalling something that one of her parents used to say. We all have our own understanding and varying levels of tolerance around what family should do and be. For Lilo, it included a four-armed alien “dog” who bit his own tail and rolled himself around the room like a tire when he was upset. Hey. Who am I to judge?

Creating a family where there is little or– for some folks–nothing left of one’s biological family becomes a declaration of life. While I can’t say that my experience of “family” is like or unlike anyone else’s, it is safe to say that most of us are healthier beings if we have a sense of attachment and connection. It keeps us from biting our own tails and rolling around the room like a tire. No. Don’t ask me how I know that.  That’s a topic for another day. Or another book.

My sister-in-law once observed to me, “Most people are lucky if they go through life and make one really good friend. You’re surrounded by them.”

Damn right.

The curious part of that fact is that I don’t typically seek these people out. I have noticed time after time that the people who come to play the most important roles in my life are not people I’ve gone looking for, and in some cases, I have actively resisted meeting or getting to know them.  A partner? Not on your life! A mentor? No way! A best friend? None for me, thanks! A PRIEST? Get real! A coach?  Oh hell no! The universe has such a great sense of humor! It is seemingly unfamiliar with the trust issues that many orphans carry into adulthood and drops people on to our paths to mess with the tidy, compartmentalized set-up of our lives.

Or as a friend commented to me a while ago, “You don’t have an issue with trust. You bought the whole damn subscription.”

Again. Damn right. That happens. Ya learn to work with it.

So back to the simultaneous truths I was talking about before we meandered down Memory Lane…

Creating a family of choice as an adult is a celebratory act. We survived. Whatever it was that separated us from our bio family—death, divorce, mental illness, addiction, family reaction to our coming out, we survived it. And we came out the other side still whole enough to want to make some connections with people we care about, and still whole enough to want to be cared about. They are enormous steps for people who have purchased that subscription to the Journal of a Universal Lack of Trust to acknowledge the wound left by loss, to resign ourselves to the knowledge that nothing and no one can ever heal that wound and it’s just something we are all gonna live with for the rest of our days, to admit that we are changed by those experiences and– dammit all—despite all of that, we still want to be and appreciate being connected to other people.

It’s never an easy feat.  On my more cynical days, I ponder why anyone in their right mind would continue to pursue important relationships with people when important relationships with people are exactly the difficulty in the first place. How do we balance such cynicism, punch through the unwillingness to trust and experience closeness AND risk that loss over and over again? Granted, the later losses look different, and probably feel different as adult coping skills and cognitive development kicks in…but the risk remains. Why open yourself up for it?

Because, dammit. This is what we’re here for. It’s what makes us gloriously human.

“Ohana means family. Family means nobody is left behind or forgotten.”

So I don’t know if I experience this like other people.  Family, of origin and of choice, is both the greatest gift and the greatest challenge to face.  The connections I celebrate with my family of choice bring joy and warmth and acceptance to my life. The connection I share with my sister, my remaining sibling, allows me a sense of history. I do have a past. I was a child—or at least a very short adult. She holds some of those memories in a way that no one else on the planet will ever be able to do. It’s a beautiful thing. And simultaneous truths…the disruption of those connections summons a grief that can feel endless. The pain is exquisite and peerless, echoing previous losses as is the nature of grief, and the only way out is through. I am not embarrassed to say anymore that such grief can and has taken me off my feet.  That’s the risk each time and it’s part of the lighthouse I elected to move back from the eroding shoreline (

Point A.  Family is about exuberance and joy.

Point B. Family is about risking profound loss.

Simultaneous truths. Every day, I commit to making space for both of those concepts and seek the balance between the two, while not biting my own tail and rolling around like a tire. No. Sorry, there’s no photo of THAT.


A Group Effort

Posted: May 11, 2014 in Blog
Tags: , , ,

The title of Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes  a Village, has always appealed to me.   I imagined using a take-off on that title if I were ever to write a memoir. (Little did I know!) Given some of my Catholic school adventures after the parents crossed over while I was running around the world as a 17 year old on my own, I figured if I went with something along the lines of It Takes  a Village to Raise a Child, but It Only Takes One of Me to Raze an Entire Village, we’d be somewhere close to the truth.

It’s true…I come up a bit short handed in the parent arena. Handling that as a kid required some amount of creativity and resourcefulness and I got rather skilled at negotiating around that spot where a mom-of-a-sort was supposed to be. It was an early understanding of family of choice. I made it work. That was the option.

As I was scrolling posts on Facebook this morning, and all of the happy Mother’s Day wishes jumped out at me, I was struck by idea again that I am simply not a product of one mom-of-a-sort. I think I’ve ended up becoming a product of multiple moms-of-a-sort…those women who stood in, stood up, stood with me after the role had to be vacated by the mom-of-a-sort who brought me into this world. Multiple moms-of-a-sort. They helped get me through. And I’ll tell ya, it took quite a bit of the village.

So, a tribute to all of the moms-of-a-sort who were part of that village is in order. Especially since the village was occasionally under attack from teenage silliness, surly moods and hormones. That’s right—not only did I come into the world with one person who was willing to see me through that, I found several others along the way.  Some of them should be canonized, but since leaving Catholicism behind, my version of canonization requires actually shooting people out of cannons, so perhaps we should skip that step until Pope Francis can be reached for consultation.

To the mom-of-a-sort who brought me here. May the pain be gone, may your lightbody relax and untwist, and may there be no need for “bring me two pills of THIS color and one pill of THAT color” after your afternoon nap.

mom of a sort

To her sister, my Aunt Connie, whose house soon became home base, and who (as my cousin noted in her eulogy a couple of years ago), felt so strongly about being a mom, that when the mom-of-a-sort crossed over, Aunt Connie raised not only her own seven kids but to an extent, my brother and me too. Rest well, Aunt Connie. I always wanted to be an honorary Nelson because of you.

Aunt Connie crop

To my sister Pat, to whom I often refer as “a colorful character”, whose son is a year older than I, for whom I would just be “one of the kids” for our whole lives, and who taught me the importance of powerful statements like “Yeah? Up yours!” and “Kiss my Irish ass!” Love you, Patti!


To my sister-in-law Jedda, to a summer of practical jokes, fudge fights and becoming friends as adults, and who cheered me on when I decided to paint the Major’s toenails pink while he napped in his chair. Breathe easy, my friend, and rest well. You are thought of often and with tremendous love.

Jedda crop

To the father’s girlfriend, Marie, who began dating the father when I was in the 5th grade. Marie made us human. Upon my first discovery of the father kissing Marie one evening in our living room, I was certain of two things: 1) my retinas had begun to bleed and 2) the father was just a person.  Marie is now almost 90 and is spending this Mother’s Day in critical care in a hospital in Philadelphia. I wish you comfort and peace.

Marie crop

And to another mom-of-a-sort, Pat, who opened her home to me at a time I desperately needed it and never asked questions. It the type of kindness you can only pay forward because it cannot be returned. Enjoy your day, Mom Miller!

Pat Miller


I am a combination of many people’s efforts and many people’s time. It is an interesting view to scroll Mother’s Day’s posts and think, wow, where do I begin? It is perhaps this history of being given to that set me up well to do what I do in my job…because I had a village and came to know the importance of it.

Cheers to the women of my village. And if you had a village, cheers to the women of your village as well!




The mom spending the first Christmas without her son.

The daughter spending the first Christmas without her mom.

The mom whose son was deployed to Afghanistan at the beginning of December.

The young transman whose family has disowned him after his body started to change, when it was obvious this was no longer “just a phase”, leaving him on his own for the holidays to create a family out of close friends in an effort to ease the hurt of their rejection.

We expect a lot from our holidays, this mad rush to be happy, happy, happy and to buy, buy, buy. We readily jump to acknowledge the passing of the first Christmas when it adds to our holiday spirit and brings us up—baby’s first Christmas, our first Christmas as a married couple, our first Christmas in our new house. Having been through two first Christmases that can be described as anything but adding to the holiday spirit, Christmas is not usually my favorite time of year. Our first Christmas after the mother’s death when I was seven was nothing short of gut wrenching. The second first Christmas, this time after the father’s death ten years later, was life altering. At this point, Christmas is mostly a season to be endured until the afternoon of December 25th, when relief floods into me and I can breathe again for another year.

I find myself more reflective in the weeks leading up to Christmas than at most other times of the year. During my reflection this year, I couldn’t help but note the firsts going on around me. The examples I offered above are real people in my life right now, real people who just went through their first gut wrenching or life altering holiday season without someone they love. Real people, maybe waiting to breathe again when the holiday season ended.  For my friend Julie, it may be a bit different—her son, Michael, is serving in the Army and periodically she posts photos of a beautiful young man in fatigues, armed with automatic weapons. He’s still here…he just wasn’t HERE for the holidays. Still a first.

It makes me wonder how many of us jump to recognize these other firsts as we do baby’s first Christmas or the first Christmas in our new house. How many of us are willing to be “adopted” as family of choice by the kids who have been turned away or kicked out? How many of us are even aware of those kids? It’s a different kind of demanding a lot from the holidays to go beyond our comfort zones and expose ourselves, to exist with the unease or the pain of the difficult holidays.

December 25th has come and gone. In our reflections as 2014 progresses, let this be a year for us to recognize the many kinds of firsts that we all share and treat the difficult ones, the ones we sometimes shy away from for our own comfort, with as much attention and love as the joyous ones.

Happy new year, Urban Tidepool friends!