In two weeks I will fill my Jeep with a few of my young adult children and we will drive to Texas for a wedding and a reunion. The bride is my niece, and the reunion was an obvious extension of her well-planned nuptials. Of course there have been the usual preparations for this trip. The haircuts, the shopping for appropriate clothes, the formalities of getting off work. But I've been doing unexpected mental preparations too.
As the weeks have flown by I've found myself thinking a lot about who I am. Who I am in relation to these people, these 4 siblings I will go spend time with and make new memories with.
We all live in different states now. We are all in our late 40s and early 50s. We've become the adults we are going to be. We've made life choices and landed in the place life has designed for us. We are no longer 'young', with a landscape of years ahead of us to navigate. The people we were when we last shared a house together, and bedrooms in common, is on a far off horizon.
We grew up in a foster home. As in, our parents were foster parents. I mention this because, as is true with many decisions your parents make, this fact changed us as we navigated those waters. It changed us as a family, and it changed us as individuals. Sharing our home, and our parents, made us see life a bit differently than our peers who went home to regular families. I can't speak for my siblings, but after years of pondering, I know how that heritage affected me.
Another fact of our childhood is that we grew up in the Baptist church. As in, we were always in church - Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. Then youth group activities as they appeared throughout the week. Some of us (raising my hand) clung tightly to those teachings and some of us strayed a bit in our teen and college years, before circling back. But it shaped us, nonetheless.
College years hit and we scattered. The foster siblings were long gone. Mom and Dad were figuring out how to do the empty nest thing on a large scale, and how to save their strained marriage. Each of us picked a path that fit who we were, whether that be college close to home, college far away, or a short stint in the military.
In the early 1990s, we gathered when we could. We felt a common bond, having survived growing up in an unusual household dynamic. We liked beginning to know each other as grown-ups, with all the childhood baggage left behind. We still tended to follow birth order rules but it was generally comforting to see each other making our way in the world of adulthood.
We lost our mom in the middle of that decade. Way too early. It changed the balance. The hub of the wheel was gone. We scrambled to figure out who we were as a family without her. Dad worked hard to keep us connected, but the equilibrium of our unit was off kilter for a while. He remarried, with blessings from all of us, and things settled into a new normal. A less connected normal.
Decades passed too quickly. Those toddlers in the home movies graduated from elementary school and then suddenly were of driving age. We had all found paths in different directions and lives in different states. Phone calls were made from land lines until texting arrived to help us stay connected. But with the chaos of life with older kids and the complication of some major health issues in my own family, I was suddenly only seeing my siblings every few years, calling occasionally in between.
We all knew we loved and respected each other. Even if reality said we really didn't know each other that well anymore. I like to think my nieces and nephews know Aunt Judy loves them and thinks of them often, but there are no backyard barbecues to prove that anymore. I had to come to peace with the fact that I don't know how many times they've had a broken arm, or who they consider their best friend. Facebook helps, but it's not a substitute for really knowing a young person.
The past ten years I've changed a lot. Who I am, who I have become, what I believe in, have all been refined.
I hit my early forties and realized I needed to start being true to myself. I re-thought some of the beliefs I'd held for much of my life. I mixed in the memories of the suffering I saw and heard about from foster siblings. I weighed the life stories of many people I've met in adulthood, who struggled in their own ways. Many of my childhood beliefs didn't line up anymore.
I purged some, and re-established others. I really took the time to ponder every belief I held and weigh it carefully before I added it back into the pile. My beliefs were no longer sprouted from ideals, but from real life experiences with real life citizens of the earth.
I stopped being the quiet one who just agreed so I wouldn't be forced to disagree. After feeling very pigeon-holed in high school I deliberately went to college three hours away and found my voice. I started to become the more outgoing person I had always wanted to be. I married my best friend and, with his encouragement, I have, year after year, found my stride. I've taken chances and pursued opportunities. I've chipped away at that old me, the one who silently grew up behind two older sisters with strong personalities and perfect Farrah Fawcett hair.
The hard part has been how many of those beliefs no longer line up with the beliefs I had as a 20 something. Or with the beliefs of some of my family members. We all came from the same pot. But we all grew into individual beings.
Formed from our adult life experiences, that were continually mixed with our childhood teachings, and sprinkled with our adult interactions.
I'm perfectly okay that all five of us might now have distinctly different beliefs. In fact, I cherish it.
I can only hope that my siblings have also examined their lives and become the people they truly want to be. It will make them the most at peace with their future and the most content in their everyday lives. As we are all considering what an empty nest looks and feels like, knowing who we are inside is the first step in understanding where we should wander next.
I look forward to being in the same room as my Dad, stepmom, and 4 siblings. The joking and camaraderie come easily. We were purposefully raised to be kind and respectful. We practice those skills on each other. I think we all appreciate the fact that being together is so rare that it's not useful to spend our time disagreeing about things. Having lost our mother so early we are very in tune with how fragile and unpredictable life can be. It's important to make every memory count.
But I go to this reunion, and this well anticipated gathering feeling a bit fragile. I fear that I will be pigeon holed right back into that shy, quiet fifteen-year-old my siblings knew so long ago. Or that not yet refined 25 year old I see in the old home movies.
As siblings we had our balance, and it's easy to go back there. Oldest one in charge. Youngest one still thought of as the baby, even if he'll soon be leaving his forties. But I'm ready to be seen as me. The almost 50 year old me. The one I've worked hard to become.
Until then, every sad song will bring tears, touching a nostalgic place deep inside me, as I anticipate finally spending time with my core family. My mom's presence will be felt and maybe acknowledged a few times, bringing mist to our eyes. We will all be thinking of how she would have loved seeing how well we've all turned out. She had some amazing grandchildren she never got to see.
But we'll all walk into the room with happy hearts in two weeks. My oldest sister might be a bit more exhausted than the rest of us, as she's spent a very long time getting ready for this magical wedding that will take place for her oldest daughter. But we'll all be happy to be there.
We'll spend an afternoon making an old traditional Polish dish our Grandma Johnson raised our dad on, and we'll rejoice when it turns out pretty close to the way she used to make it. Cousins will mingle and play games, being reminded that they are related to some pretty cool people. And my Dad will take it all in with a full heart.
Vows will be traded, toasts will be given, and a new member will be added to our large family. Then we'll all make our way back home. Back home to be the people we've been working so many decades to become.