My earliest family memories are playing with cousins on the lawn of our quarter-acre block during birthday parties, and games of hide and seek in darkened bedrooms on Saturday nights while my parents and aunts and uncles played cards. Then came the 1950s housing boom, and along with it, a veneer of prosperity thanks to easy credit. My father tried to make a financial kill by working all weekends building spec houses. Unfortunately it soon killed those early happy memories too.
It was my extended family who blunted the pain of my parents’ divorce when I was ten. Holidays on Uncle Bill’s dairy farm sugar coated my uncomfortable new reality. Every day I was in the cowshed putting leg ropes on cows that kicked, washing teats, and attaching suction cups to bulging udders while we listened to the latest happenings in the lives of Dad and Dave from Snake Gully. During the day I rode Old Bill the draught horse with reins made from hay bale twine. My aunt watched me from the house and laughed because I looked like “a pimple on a pumpkin.” On hot summer days I swam with cousins in the irrigation channel or sucked lemons in the shade while cousin Lorraine read stories about the wishing chair with wings on its legs.
“The family that plays together stays together” was a headline I read in a Singapore newspaper in the early eighties. It still sticks in my mind. Looking back, I had more fun on Uncle Bill’s dairy farm and accumulated far more happy childhood memories there than with my own family.
Research shows that close and happy family ties help maintain a healthy heart. This is what researchers discovered in the 100-year-old close-knit Italian-American community of Roseto in the 1960s, where the death rate from heart disease was less than half that of surrounding communities. This is supported by research of Drs. Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman into the relationship between personality and the development of coronary heart disease. They found evidence that the lack of human companionship or disrupted social relationships may lead to the development of arteriosclerosis and sudden death. They also linked heart disease to the Type A personality of chronic over workers. Perhaps it was not surprising then that my father had a heart attack in his early forties after he remarried and escaped into work again each weekend during the turmoil of trying to bind together a fractured family and widely differing personalities.
“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life,” wrote Richard Bach in Illusions. “Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.” These were new thoughts I packed into the back of my mind when, after my own divorce from a man who worked every weekend, I left Australia to travel across the United States.
To my surprise, I gathered a new extended family around me as I travelled. There was the fatherly Nemen in San Francisco whose beautiful words brought tears to my eyes during wedding ceremonies on his 90 foot yacht. During one unforgettable evening, he did what I wished my father had been able to do. He encouraged the woman in me to wrest control of my life from the frightened little girl who had ruled it for so long.
Kit, a lawyer I met in a redwood forest, tracked my travels with the interest and care of a brother and supported me with his wise words of wisdom. From Ohio, Ruth wrote motherly letters with encouraging words that often brought tears to my eyes during times I had succumbed to uncertainty and fear.
Staff at a health ranch where I worked for some months became like an extended family of cousins and aunts and uncles working in the kitchen together preparing vegetarian meals for guests – who also became part of the extended family. When one of the guests asked what I had put in the lentil soup, I recited a long list of ingredients. He surprised by saying, “You didn’t mention the most important ingredient: love.” For the first time I began to experience genuine appreciation for my cooking that my own ‘family’ took for granted.
But it is the sisterly experience with Katherine that stands out most in my mind. I met her in Florida and, after reading a manuscript I had written about divorce and its impact on my life, she said, “I don’t feel alone anymore. Can we talk?” She said she had gained inspiration from what I had written about learning to love oneself as the antidote to brokenness and despair. It gave her the courage to do something she had longed to do for years: enlist to become a Deputy Sheriff.
The joy of her unfolding still brings a smile to my face. I watched with the pride of a sister the day she graduated as top police cadet. Later when she proudly showed me her own patrol car, she pointed out a small soft toy dog she had draped over the rifle and shot gun mounted above the front seat. We laughed almost until we cried at the absurdity of a soft and sentimental ‘cop’. When she won ‘Deputy Sheriff of the Year’ a few years later, the triumph over her struggles to achieve success reminded me again of Richard Bach’s words that the bond of one’s true family is “respect and joy in each other’s lives.”
I could fill a book with the happy and emotionally moving experiences I had with the people who became my ‘true family’. They fill my heart with warm fuzzies just thinking about their support and encouragement, the laughter and tears we shared, and how we learned to open our hearts to love in a more unconditional way. After divorce caused the well of happy childhood memories to run dry in my childhood, I found that by opening my mind and heart to the prospect of a universal family, the shared respect and joy in our lives filled my well of happy memories to overflowing.
Richard Bach, (1977), Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Arrow Books, London.
James J. Lynch, (1977), The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, Basic Books, Inc., New York
© Juliet Bonnay
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