Friday, December 14, 2012

The Chosen Family

by Jean Roberta

The current topic is intensely ironic for me, especially during the “holiday season.”


My surviving blood relatives washed their hands of me in the aftermath of my parents’ funerals in 2009.

My two younger sisters accused me of trying to gain control of our elderly parents’ money in 2005 when I got Power of Attorney to make sure our parents’ bills were paid, in response to our father’s admission that he could no longer keep track of such things. As the only family member still living in the same town as our parents, I thought it made sense for me to take responsibility for their care in a legal sense. When I called each of my sisters long-distance, they both seemed to accept the arrangement.

Shortly afterwards, one of my sisters and her husband arrived in town, and within 24 hours, our father was complaining that the papers he had signed would allow “anyone from the street” to steal his money. Our mother didn’t understand what was happening, but she felt the tension. She wept steadily while my father, my sister and her husband all accused me of going to “the wrong lawyer.” (I hadn’t known that only one was acceptable to them.)

In short, to keep the peace, I didn’t protest when my two sisters arranged a completely different Power of Attorney deal which allowed “any two” (guess which two) of the three sisters to make financial decisions for our parents. (The legal fees I had paid out of my pocket were never acknowledged, much less reimbursed.) The family perception of me as a snake in the grass has only solidified over time.

In due course, my parents’ fairly sizable estate was divided into equal four parts, in accordance with their will: one-quarter to each daughter and to my grown daughter, my parents’ only grandchild. Receiving their shares of the inheritance didn’t make my sisters or my daughter any better-disposed toward me. I sensed that they felt it grossly unfair that I received exactly as much as each of them.

In summer 2010, my daughter told me she was ending her relationship with me for the sake of herself and her two children. Since then, she and her husband have not responded to my emails. I’ve been very tempted to send presents to my grandchildren for their birthdays and for Christmas, but I’m afraid the parents would simply send the parcel back or give the stuff away. For two years, I sent emails asking if the kids, at least, could be allowed to accept what I send them. The silence in response seems like an answer in itself.

So who is my family? A recent scene comes to mind: In October 2012, I went out for supper with my spouse Mirtha (thanks to the groundbreaking bill that made same-sex marriage legal throughout Canada in 2005), her two grown sons, Younger Son’s two long-term housemates and his fiancée (I’ll call her Chloe). We were at our favourite restaurant, which serves Mediterranean-style tapas.

We were getting together partly because, for once, we all had time for this in our busy schedules, and partly to celebrate Chloe’s 25th birthday, several days late. We all had martinis, and Younger Son (I’ll call him Romeo) proposed a toast: to our chosen family, the one that was meant to be.

While my blood family has frozen me out, my family-by-marriage has blossomed since 2009. I used part of my inheritance to make down-payments on houses for my two stepsons, and having their own space seems to have changed their lives. Older Son (I’ll call him Orpheus) enjoys time alone with his two cats. Music has been part of my stepsons’ lives since they were born, and Orpheus works in a music store that sends him on interesting trips and gives him promotions. (He also works as a sound technician, for which he was trained.) At forty, he seems to have found his groove.

Romeo likes having his favourite people in the same house. His oldest friend (I’ll call him Dennis) has a room and contributes to the rent. Carlos, a friend whose mother more-or-less abandoned him when she remarried, has another room in Romeo’s house, and he sleeps in a bed provided by Mirtha and me. (He had been couch-surfing in the homes of other families in the local Latino community.) Chloe, a brilliant young woman with a degree in Physics, took care of the bills and made sure the rent (i.e. mortgage) was paid regularly to Mirtha and me. (Technically, we own three houses.)

About a year before, Chloe entered the baccalaureate program in the local university, which requires immersion in French. Her plan is to get teaching credentials so that she can teach science in a French-speaking secondary school. (French is one of Canada’s two official languages, but qualified French-speaking employees are hard to find here on the prairies. Chloe was told that once she has her degree, she need never be unemployed in her life.)

Romeo finally admitted that his freelance career as a Latin percussionist and band leader (brilliant & talented as he is) is never likely to provide a secure income, so he asked Mirtha and me to finance his return to university as an Engineering major. We agreed, and the money we’ve spent on his tuition gets us a tax deduction in the present, plus he has promised to repay us when he is able to in the future. (I believe he will.)

The gathering was convivial. I knew that Romeo and Chloe were under stress because they were working harder than ever before and living on less money (the fate of most university students). They both seemed to enjoy a break from studying. Carlos was more talkative than I had ever seen (or heard) him. He discussed his job as a dance instructor in the new Latin Studio, a kind of grass-roots place that hosts local bands.

I felt grateful to be part of a family in which everyone has found their calling. (On a more secretive level, I felt proud to be the Sugar Mama who helped make it possible.)

That scene now seems like a photo of happier times. Several days ago, Chloe told Romeo that the relationship isn’t working for her, that he is not giving her what she needs, and that she needs her freedom. (According to Romeo, she didn’t want to break up with him during exam-time, but he knew something was wrong and “pried it out of her.”) Two days ago, Chloe’s mother arrived from her home (about a 7-hour drive away) to help Chloe move her things out of the house.

Mirtha and I had planned to give Romeo and Chloe the deed to their house as a wedding present.

Romeo is in such bad shape that Mirtha and I don’t want him to be left alone, and we have spoken to his housemates about this. (Thank the Goddess they are around.) I have offered to help get him an extension of time to finish his classwork (I’m not above pulling strings as an instructor at the u.), but he wants to soldier on and write all his exams on schedule.

The death of a relationship is just that: a death. I don’t blame Chloe, even though I don’t really understand her reasons. A relationship takes two, and if one person has one foot out the door, it’s not really based on consent.

I haven’t stopped liking Chloe, but if I ever hear that she is married with children, I know I will feel as if I’ve been deprived of another set of grandchildren.

“Family” sounds so warm, so secure, so unbreakable. But the real reason to be grateful for family is that we really only have each other in the present moment. The future can never be taken for granted.



  1. Jean - An insightful entry. You know someone is "your" child when you wish you could take the burden of pain and bear it for him.

  2. Hi Roberta!

    That last sad line is is so painfully true. In a way family is what we have, but family is as fragile as everything else. I'm also sorry about the estrangement with your sisters.

    This must be a difficult time of year for you. Hang in there.


  3. Jean, dear,

    I've heard some of this tale before, but I didn't know you had a "step-family" through Mirtha. You, and she, are both fortunate in that regard.

    The notion that our blood relations should for some reason be closer than our chosen ones doesn't seem to be realistic, for most families. Mine seems to be the exception, but even so, my feelings for my step-mom are at least as strong as I ever had for my birth mother.

  4. Kathleen, Garce and Lisabet,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I was very grateful to have my step-family when my blood family cut me adrift. At the time, Romeo gave me a surprisingly mature & gracious little speech about how I didn't have to feel alone in the world because, as he said, "You have us." Lately, he's been saying he doesn't think he will ever form another relationship. (He was in 2 earlier, serious, live-in relationships and was dumped the same way each time.) I keep telling him you can't predict who will be in your life in the long run. I should know.


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