What makes someone family?
Seems like a simple question. Biologically, it is. However within the social construct, different people have different answers. I tried to answer this myself when I was very young and I did so with another question.
How do I know, my brother is actually my brother?
The answer is simple. Your parents told you. Or maybe the sibling themselves, told you so. That’s how you know. No cosmic revelation, just a simple piece of information we just accept blindly as fact. We do so without hesitation or second guessing. It is usually told to us so young and it becomes as factual as the sun rises in the east. In my case, my mother imparted this knowledge to me.. But I went further still..
How do I know what she told me was true?
Seems humorous, but it is indeed a valid question. I am the oldest and saw all my brothers born. I was too young to remember my immediate sibling, but the rest, I was there. They are my brothers because we have the same mother. That I know… Or do I?
How do I know this woman is actually my mother?
Now I've gone too far.. But what are these questions about really? Who is my family or who is my blood. Was that what my secondary and tertiary questions were about? Who is your “blood” relative and who is your “family” can either be one and the same, or vastly different universes.
Of all our family relationships, motherhood is the only one that is born of nature. All others are born of nurture. Interestingly fatherhood, seems to be the one relationship that is often easily questioned, yet siblings, uncles, aunties, and others, are summarily accepted as fact.
And what does family actually mean? To me, you are taught, at a young age, that family members are those that receive the better of your interpersonal relationships. They get a different set of rules. They get the preferential treatment. It set the hierarchy of my personal relationships. Sibling over cousins, cousins over friends, aunties over your mother’s friends, uncles over your father’s co-workers. It’s one of the reasons, I believe, in my culture, African parents will make you call anyone they feel deserve higher treatment, auntie or uncle. Whether they are blood or not. So these labels dictate the basic rules of engagement and you don’t question them.
You treat these people specially, as they, in turn, will do the same for you. Not because of some past history or experiences, but simply because you are family. Any other relationship, that warrants that level of preferential treatment is usually garnered over time and experiences with that person. Simply put, you earn it. But family members are given it, automatically, without question, or merit.
It matters more from the perspective of the young towards the old. You don’t need to have a history with this man or woman, for them to treat you different than someone else. You don’t need to have known them for years and years, for your uncle or auntie to be there for you. It’s all in how they treat you.
That’s it…. Family is all about how specially someone treats you… Where do you rank within their interpersonal social construct.
As I got older, I realized there were people I had been giving this preferential treatment, in this social grouping called family, that were grandfathered in, for a lack of a better word, but over the years and time, never did anything to actually merit that grouping. People that never actually gave me any preferential treatment. Never truly had my back or was there for me. when things were going poorly. But enjoyed all the preferential benefits when things were going well.
I have an uncle, a relative, whom I have known all my life. Fun, funny, gregarious! He was, and I’m sure still is, the life of any party he is a part of. I adored him as a young boy. He was always around at parties or events of celebration. He made everything more fun. But his record during situation of strife and hardship was poor and non existent. It always seemed that during family issues or needs, he would somehow some way get into dispute with the other family members and disappear.
These disappearances used to make me sad. I would blame my family for driving away my favorite uncle. But time would pass, the issue or problem, would be resolved and good times would return. And so would my favorite uncle. See! I would think. If we could stop driving him away, he would always stay around. I didn’t realize how wrong this was until, as an adult, I needed hm to stand by me in my time of need.
I was in desperate need of a job. I had just come back to the States, and my Nigerian qualifications were not getting me into doors. A headhunter once told me to abbreviate my name because my traditional name made it seem like I was just off the boat. I was running low on money and needed to move out of my brother's apartment. I desperately needed a job doing literally anything, packing boxes, washing dishes, anything, I didn’t care. I needed help.
I remember it like it was yesterday. He asked if I wanted to play tennis with him. After the game I pulled him aside asked him if he could put in a good word at his lodge for a busboy job. Not get me the job, but at least tell them I am his family, when I apply.
And thus began the long story.
I don’t even remember the list of excuses he gave me. I just remember feeling hurt. This was the very first time, in all those years, I had ever asked him for help and he wasn’t able to give it. He in fact never asked me to play tennis with him again. I guess it was for fear I would ask him for another favor. I didn’t. I made sure never to ask him for anything again. He still did not diminish in my eyes. I mean, he was my favorite uncle.
Years passed and as I began to garner successes, he began to be more and more visible in my life. There was no party, cookout or event, that he did not make sure he attended. I began to realize he was only there in the good times. To enjoy the successes, but wanted no part of you, if you were a failure. As he had distanced himself from other less fortunate members of our family. Ensuring to make fun of their hardships amongst us more fortunate members. Did he do that to me, when I was down and out? Laugh about me wanted to be a busboy?
He simply disappeared when the going was tough. Showed up when it was easy. Yet he still enjoyed the preferential treatment of uncle, until, I decided he no longer earned it.
He has done nothing to me. He has not offended me. But I felt he was occupying a space in my social hierarchy he did not earn nor deserve. In short he never did anything to actually distinguish me, in his social hierarchy, why should he occupy one in mine. There were more deserving people, who were not blood relatives, that consistently over many years, placed me in a position close to them.
Then I decided. You earn your keep with me. I threw out the meanings behind the labels and focused on who were these people, in actions, to me. I soon realized I have tons of relatives but very little family. Theses relatives, were auto receiving the “family” benefits from me, when they had long since established they deserved none. Yet there were some in my life that did.
The late father of a close college friend of mine, Shuaib, not only helped me get into college, he opened his house and family to me. He would provide guidance to me. He and his wife allowed me to live with their family during vacation days when I needed to stay in school but didn't have enough money to feed myself. He would write letters of recommendation for me, if I asked him to. His wife would travel to the states and buy clothes for me and my brother, as she would her own children. And to further make my point, I used to tell people they were my uncle and auntie and their children were my cousins. And no one doubted it for a second!
Why? Because of they way they treated me.
I will never forget the late Haji Kahlil Mahmud and his late wife, Zakiyyah. They treated me like family. And not for one, or two years or just the time I was in college, but from the time they opened their home to me in 1982, till the day they both passed on. I even named my first daughter after Mrs. Mahmud. I think about them all the time and miss them dearly.
When Mrs Mahmud passed away 2 years ago, my wife and I ensured we were there. As her four sons began to bring out her casket, her 3rd son, Luqman, whom till this day I still call and consider my cousin, looked at me and said, “Come Chet, were you not her son?”. For the rest of the service, everyone, from friends, blood relatives and even the clergy, treated me as such. That day still chokes me up..
There is not a drop of biological blood between the Mahmuds and myself, yet, I ask you, are they, and their children, my childhood friends, my family? Let the affirmation to this rhetorical question linger.
Family is how they treat you.
So I have gone on to remove those that were never really my family, but merely relatives, from my circle and life. A brother, some uncles, some aunts, a few cousins, one or two sisters, are some of the people that did not earn the meaning to those titles, so I have moved away from them. They no longer deserve a look into my life, not even on social media. The expulsion is necessary, to reverse the automatic inclusion.
Sadly there is a brother, I may never see again till the gates of heaven or hell. This, in of itself, does not make me sad, but they fact that I wasted all those years thinking of him differently. Ignoring his deep insecurities and cowardice, that were masked for years under hidden agendas. I ignored them because, he was my brother, my family.
To think there was a time, I almost risked my life, literally and not figuratively, to defend him, when he was too frightened to defend himself. What a waste of my life that would have been.
This goes against everything I was raised with. Even the Mahmuds would have deeply disapproved. They, like many, believe family is everything. No matter what they do, they remain family. Not to me. Not anymore. It is what they do that makes them family.
I will concentrate my love and time to those, blood or not, that are truly family. Is it sad? On some level, yes. Who wouldn't want to have a close perfect family of blood relatives? As a father I am hoping my children remain as close, in the future, as they are today. Interestingly, I believe, by reducing my inner circle to only true "family", I am giving my children a better chance of having a real "family" they can truly count on for years to come.
Life is not perfect. You play the hand you are dealt as best you can. And the saddest thing would actually be to waste years of your life giving to those, that do not reciprocate, merely because of a pre-taught, passed down construct, that may have been needed when you were 5, but burdensome, at least, and destructive, at worst, at 35, or older.
I won’t waste another second on a relative that is not “family”.
- Chet Bashari Anekwe -