Happy Birthday, Jen

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Today is a very special day; it’s the birthday of one of my favorite people. This amazing woman has been a constant in my life for over 25 years. I often write about my life and tell stories of my triumphs and tragedies. The story today is about my friend Jen.

Calling her a friend doesn’t really fully describe our relationship. She’s more than a friend, she’s family. The wonderful thing about adulthood is that you get to chose your family. I’m so glad we chose each other.

We met in middle school. I liked her wit and her bright spirit instantly. Our high school days were filled with the kind of memories you only have if you grew in a small town. We had a lot of fun, none of which I can repeat in this blog. Just in case her kids read it. Let’s just say we had many adventures, and we lived to remember it.

I almost lost her decades ago when she was in a bad car accident. Seeing her in the hospital was something I can still recall. But she never felt sorry for herself. We even laughed at our attempt to navigate a Wendy’s while she was using a walker.

Adolescence soon merged into adulthood. And by then I had already been dealt many blows. And she was there. No matter what heartbreak I had, she was there to listen and love me. It’s hard to find someone who always show up for you.

In all our years of friendship, I cannot recall an argument or harsh word. There have been times when we haven’t talked as much because you know, life. But she is someone I could call to be there. I’ve called her in tears many times, only to finish the call with a smile.

She has since grown to be an amazing wife, mother and neighbor. I know this because of how she lives her life, never judging, always forgiving. She is the epitome of selflessness. She’s much more selfless than I could ever dream of being. She makes every room brighter for being in it. Her kids are such lovely boys who love and respect their mom.

I do worry that she doesn’t do enough for herself. I encourage her to take time just for her. She deserves it.

Some of our best times have been lately. We are just so in sync with each other these days. We don’t see each other near enough to suit us, but we commit to making time for each other. I can be completely honest with her, showing her the good and imperfect parts of myself. There’s only a handful of people I genuinely trust, and she’s in that select group.

With her in my life, I’ve had much more laughter and love. I look forward to many more years of adventures with my pal. I’m so blessed to have this beautiful lady by my side in this crazy, amazing life.

Happy Birthday, Jen. I love you!

How I Redefined Family

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Family doesn’t have to be conventional. Blood and DNA need not apply. Because if that was the only way to define family, I’d be all alone. I have no parents, children, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles or first cousins. By the time I was 20, my immediate family was gone, all deceased.

My ideas of family have always been outside of traditional or nuclear definitions. I didn’t grow up with a large family. It was just my mom, brother and grandparents. I did experience somewhat of an extended family. Although my mom was an only child, she had many aunts, uncles and first cousins, many of whom she had grown up with. Although none of them lived in our town, many weren’t far away. We visited my great aunt and uncle (my Pop’s brother) often in Greenville. I considered them my aunt and uncle and loved to visit them. Their children, my mom’s first cousins, were around a lot too growing up. They visited us; we visited them. I think she considered them more like brothers. They teased each other a lot because she went to the University of South Carolina, and they were all Clemson grads. I am thankful for these memories and how lovely they were to me growing up.

My paternal grandmother came from a large family. She had I think eight siblings, most of whom I didn’t know or passed before I was born. I did spend a lot of time with her two closest sisters: one taught me piano and always had fun stories to tell me. The other was a painter and traveler, who always shared pictures and stories of her adventures. I’m glad to say I still have several of her paintings hanging in my house.

As the only grandchildren on either side, I’m sure my brother and I were spoiled. If not with stuff then with attention. I was so lucky to have so much one-on-one time with my grandparents. And even though they’ve been gone a long time, I still think of them often and what they taught me: to play cards, sew, bake cakes, be curious, be brave and much more.

Because my frame of reference of family was small, I never gave much consideration to if I wanted to have a big family. As a girl growing up my aspirations were not centered on getting married and having kids. My dreams were about a career.

When my family started to disappear is when I started to rethink the idea of family. Thinking about humans on the most primal level, family is about ensuring a bloodline. Early on in human history, it was about survival, not just of one’s own genes but the species. Now we’re overpopulated so I think we’re good on species preservation for now.

In thinking about the beginnings of what family was and what society paints it to be, how would I reconstruct what family means? And since I have no way to pass along my genes or traits, what does that mean? Should I believe that the gene pool didn’t need my bloodline to continue? I’ve wrestled with many questions about family for years; here’s what I’ve concluded.

Family is my choice now. It’s way beyond genetics. Having the same genetic makeup really has nothing to do with love. Family is people who are there when it matters, unconditional love and feeling like you can just be you. It’s people that love you in spite of yourself and will fight for you and with you. 

I wouldn’t want anyone to ever be sad for me because I know what real family is. Most people probably won’t ever know this. Justin and I have made our own little family with Honey, Fawn and Ellie. And I’m very thankful to have his kids in my life, too. I shouldn’t call them kids because they are adults, and really fine ones at that.

And the heart of my reimagined family has been my besties, wonderful women who I couldn’t have made it without: Heather, Jenn, Caron, Kelda, Cortney and Jennifer. You are so much more than friends, you’re family! Thank you for believing in me and loving me.

Everybody’s family looks different. No matter what anyone else says, if it’s built on love and trust then nothing else should matter. There were times I felt incredibly alone because my first family was gone. Now, I know it just helped me know what love is so I could build my own.