When I was a kid, I read a lot. My sister and I would both leave the library with our arms full, each having checked out our 10-book limit. For many years, my favorite topics were Holocaust-themed resistance stories and tales about the Underground Railroad. And that is probably why as a little white girl living in the middle of No Where, West Virginia, I wished I were Black. Or Jewish. The characters I read about might have been in the midst of some very terrible times, but oh, did they have an identity. They had customs and traditions and a pervasive sense of community. They knew who they were and how they should be.
My family and I, on the other hand, were on our own. My dad moved to West Virginia for college, and the rest of his immediate family lived hours away. They were in Connecticut or Maryland or Pennsylvania, where things were very different. They called Coke soda, not pop. They had brooks, not creeks. They played sports like lacrosse and soccer and swam on the swim team. And they certainly did not live up a holler in a tiny house with no air conditioning or central heating. My mom grew up in West Virginia too, but even so, her family lived in town, and their lives looked much more like those of Dad's brothers and sisters than ours.
And so, while I always felt very much a part of our extended family, I felt very different too. We weren't quite like them, and we weren't much like the people we grew up around either.
In adulthood I've seen a different side of the family. I drove cross-country when I was 21 and visited my Dad's Aunt Cami in Washington, where we took a road trip in her camper, crossing to Orcas Island on a ferry, both clad in two of her purple knee-length L. L. Bean parkas. From there, I went to see Dad's cousin Pete in Eugene, Oregon (who later let me live in his house the entire time I attended law school ), and then on to see Pete's brothers in Colorado, where we lounged in a hot tub with a view of snow-covered mountains. When I was in law school, we had a small family reunion in Tucson, and I got to drive by the rammed-earth house Dad's Aunt Mary Jo had built there years before.
A few weeks ago, we had a huge family reunion in Connecticut. My aunts spent months putting together an extensive family tree, a book full of photos, and a collection of clippings and documents--including a letter written to our great-aunt from Eleanor Roosevelt. While I'd seen hints of this before, their research revealed something a lot of us had never fully realized: We come from a line of very strong women.
Against this backdrop, and after reconnecting with about 85 of these lovely people this summer, I now realize something else as well: we may not be Black or Jewish, but this family very much has its own identity. While most everyone else didn't grow up slopping hogs or chasing the neighbor's cows out of the woods like I did, these are still my people. And I'm so thankful for this huge group of interesting, loving individuals who value each other and make a point of getting together, even over long distances, even after many years.