It’s kind of ironic for me that Sonel’s black & white photo theme this week is family, because in my life, family is certainly not “black and white”.
I grew up an immigrant; half a world away from any extended family. For most of my childhood it was Mum, Dad and the three kids. I had aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, but they were represented in my life by Christmas gifts of The Broons and Oor Wullie annuals and tubes of Smarties that usually arrived in February.
I envied the neighbourhood kids that visited grandparents or got to spend summer holidays with cousins “on the farm”. Although my parents were active in our community and both seemed to have lots of friends, I was a lonely awkward child who probably needed the security of a large family; the sense of people that loved me unthinkingly – because we had shared ancestors.
In my twenties, I moved back to the UK where the majority of my extended family live. I got to know a couple of aunts and my grandmother really well and I’m forever grateful for the time I was able to spend with them. Over the years, I’ve built tentative relationships with some of my cousins – and more recently their children.
These are loose connections though, and although I’m extremely fond of these men and women who share my ancestry, often my facial features and in some cases my name – they are still half a world away. So too are my mother and brothers, all in England these days. The only blood relative I have in New Zealand (apart from my son) is my father, with whom I’ve long had a difficult relationship.
On a day to day basis, family pretty much means my partner and son.
Yet I do have a sense of belonging to a group that is more than community. It’s made up of my friends, sometimes neighbours and some relatives. These are the people I’m close to; those I call when I feel like shit and need advice or a shoulder to cry on; the people who’ve looked after my son when I’ve needed them to – and more often because he likes being at their house anyway. The people I want to be with when I have something to celebrate and even more when it’s their turn to triumph.
The Maori word for this is whanau – which means family, but not merely or even necessarily in a biological sense. It’s about the communities of care that we construct – whatever their basis. Whanau is the group of friends, second-cousins and god-parents that gathers for dinner sometimes. It sends me out gift shopping for an old friend’s grandchildren, allows me to embrace my partner’s nephew’s half sister as my niece and my son to regard a friend’s young child as a cousin too.
My son is an only child, and in many ways I worry about his lack of family. Yet I’m confident that his whanau – the people we have chosen and who have chosen us – will love and support him. I’m confident too that he will create his own whanau as he grows older.