A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a friend’s stepfather. As I sat there, I looked across the church pew and smiled, realizing that those sitting beside me had been sitting by my side for a long time now. It has been almost 15 years since we all met in graduate school. In our younger days, we supported each other through all night study sessions, committee issues and more than a few shenanigans that I can’t put in writing (in case my mom reads this). As time went by, together we celebrated completed degrees, new jobs, new relationships and the birth of children. And we have also supported each other through work problems, divorces and the loss of parents and loved ones. For well over a decade now, this group of friends has been more than friends to me: they are the family that I chose. I am so incredibly thankful for my graduate school family, and for the other “friend families” that I have been fortunate to belong to throughout my life.
This inclination to find people around me and to create family where I am is likely born out of my experiences growing up. My mom grew up in Colorado and my dad in California. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they both adventured north to Southeast Alaska, met each other and settled down. We saw my grandparents most summers and I have fond memories of them. Yet, the people we spent holidays and marked many of my young life’s big occasions with were a created family of old friends and neighbors. It was these people that my brother and I would stay with on the few occasions my folks went out of town at the same time. It was the children of these friends who babysat my brother and I, and in turn we were the babysitters of younger kids in the friend family. And it is these people I visit when I go home.
Growing up, I celebrated nearly every holiday with this Alaskan family. Oh, the wonderful memories of multigenerational Pictionary and football-watching on New Year’s Day, of sipping virgin mixed drinks at Christmas and of fun and pandemonium on the fourth of July (nowhere does the fourth with more spunk and revelry than Ketchikan, Alaska – and it was even more lively back in the day)! This was the family that my parents chose, and that in return chose us. While some may say that we missed out on more time with our actual extended family, it wasn’t logistically realistic for us to do more. And in truth, it made things easier. There was never a debate about which grandparent to visit for which holiday, or any travel stress. And, I think most importantly, this taught me that while immediate family is great, those you let into your life can be your family too.
With busy jobs and growing families, today my grad school family gets together less often than we would like, and some are so far away that I haven’t seen them in many years. And I have to laugh that generally when we go out now, we must go someplace child-friendly – and if I have it my way, we end the evening around 9 p.m. (no more shenanigans for me…for now). Yet this is my family, and just like the other friend families, though we are not related by blood or legal contract, we have an unbreakable bond forged through shared experiences and love. I couldn’t be more thankful.