An extended family consists of those who have shaped us, who have nurtured us, cared for us, shared their stories with us, laughed and cried with us, prayed with us and stayed with us in tough times. The presence of those we love and learned from through a sort of symbiotic trust carries with it a sacred bond.
There are some of us who depend on an extended family because some family members are limited in their capacity to take the time to care. There are others who don’t have strong family bonds or have been orphaned, or have lost family members and were raised in foster care households. In such cases people look to others to fill the void left by deceased or absentee parents and brothers and sisters.
Biblically speaking, scripture is constantly referring to community as a form of family. In his encyclical “Familiaris Consortio,” Saint Pope John Paul II writes:
“All members of the family, each according to his or her own gift, have the grace and responsibility of building, day by day, the communion of persons, making the family “a school of deeper humanity”: this happens where there is care and love for the little ones, the sick, the aged; where there is mutual service every day; when there is a sharing of goods, of joys and of sorrows.”
In other words, there is a natural proclivity through grace to experience love and have our psychological needs and spiritual needs met through an extended family of friends and neighbors. When his apostles tell Jesus his brother and mother are waiting to visit him and at the door, the Master acknowledges that his mother and brothers are already present with him. Mark 3:32.
My mother joked that I was “a child of the street.” I grew up in a neighborhood where I was welcome in every house and neighbors were welcome in our house. There were so many kids around, it was easy to find pickup games and make things happen. I was really attached to that street, so much so that when we were forced to move to Cleveland when I was 10 it was tough to go.
My sophomore year, I was able to return to Buffalo to help my friend paint a house. My friend’s mother, Jackie Wells, took me in no questions asked. The experience shaped me in ways I couldn’t imagine. It helped me gain autonomy and develop deeper relationships with my friend and his family. It helped me gain a new perspective about growth, change and family. It also taught me that we can’t go back to something thinking it’s always going to be a certain way. The magnificence of life is in the evolution of people and places and endeavoring to create new opportunities which opens up for us in creative ways on the path.
Jackie recently passed away. Traveling back from Los Angeles to Cleveland, I thought about how much Jackie Wells influenced me, shaped me, and nurtured a sense of self confidence and strength within me. A mantra kept popping up in my mind. “I am who I am because of those who cared enough to understand and shape my growth.”
I can still recall Jackie’s wisdom as I was developing as a young man. I can picture her in her chair with her faithful dog by her side, drinking an OV split and watching sports yelling at the tv between stories. We’d play trivia games at night or we would sit and talk through the challenges of the day, and she would impart stories from her life with a belly laugh growl that would fill a room.
It wasn’t always easy for her. As a young married woman, she traveled to Germany away from her family, she lost a child and divorced, but she rose above it all with an optimism that inspired me. She leaned on who she needed and found her way wherever she went through the love and support of those who loved her.
Growing up, a friend of mine came from a broken family. His mother committed suicide at a young age and his older brother and sister couldn’t provide for him. The family unit was separated and each person had to find his or her own way to make it in the world. Neighbors on that street talked about who would take my friend in including Jackie and my mother.
That friend was adopted by the street. People took him in and provided for him. They sought to ensure that his basic needs were met through basic care and concern, and the neighborhood fulfilled his spiritual needs in helping him realize that he was loved. It was an extraordinary thing to witness as a youth. That boy was literally and figuratively adopted by the street.
Sometimes we are not even aware of the extended family in our midst. The seamless art of imparting wisdom through unconditional love is so effortless that it is as natural as saying hello with a smile.
In her later years, Jackie suffered from Alzheimers and couldn’t remember her own children’s names let alone mine. I didn’t visit her enough, but, when I did see her, those sacred bonds forged in childhood were strong enough to hold us together and reconnect us to the solemn commitment of family. She knew implicitly, that her life mattered to me and her spirit was safely tucked away in my heart. Her son and daughters know that their grief is my grief.
The old neighbors came out to honor one of our own – a member of the “extended family” from the old neighborhood. My sense is that they implicitly understood this sacred bond, too.