On the homefront

The concept of “home”, to me, is about family. And “family”, as far as I’m concerned, is about so much more than who your relatives are. Blood is not the only thing that makes a family. Marriages are direct evidence of this principle: even if you don’t intend to merge your genetic material to create offspring, when you get married, you form a new family. But even without government documents to bind us, families can be created in so many ways.

In our ever-expanding world, people very rarely continue to live within the same ten-mile radius that they were born into, often times moving thousands of miles away from where they were born and where their nuclear family unit resides. What then? We create our own homes, we find a new tribe, and we integrate into a new community. We set about adding branches to our family tree.

The people who surround us, care for us, and support us become our family through ties created of love. I’m very comfortable with the idea of an “extended” family. When I was growing up, it didn’t occur to me that my Auntie Rose and Auntie Nettie weren’t my mom’s real sisters — she loved them, so I did. They are part of my family. End of discussion. As a teenager, I began to wage my own life-long bonds of friendship and sisterhood. It was the first time I recall feeling bonded through shared experience: we are the same age, we come from similar dysfunctional backgrounds, we have similar interests. That was the foundation of our friendship. Then, just like Mary-Louise Parker’s character says in the movie “Boys on the Side”: there is something special that goes on between women. Through time and the magic of sisterhood, we became more than mere friends. We were sisters. Now they are my family. They are my blood. Period. End of discussion.

When I was 20, my mother died after slightly less than a year of fighting multiple myeloma. Just a year and a half earlier, we had lost my stepdad to lung cancer. I had moved from California, where both my relatives and my tribe did reside, to an itty bitty island in the middle of the Pacific in order to live with my mom and dad. And then they died. And I was alone in a way that one person should ever be. I had a roof over my head, but no home.

It took some time, but I crawled out of the crater left by that gargantuan life event. I finished college. I got married. I figured out who my real friends were and who would be members of my new tribe. I still felt like an orphan, but I managed to connect with a number of compassionate women who loved me like a daughter. I started to mend.

The thing about love, though, is that not all love is created equally. Don’t get me wrong: all love is good. But when you lose the love of a mother, no amount of love from friends or siblings or fathers is going to completely fill that empty cup. I felt, deep down to the very bottom of my soul, like a motherless wastrel in desperate need of some mothering. Every day that passed I felt more and more like an orphan, and all I wanted was my mommy.

I got my wish, after a time. In spades, you might say. And this is where I think Fate played her hand: if I hadn’t come to Hawaii, I wouldn’t have learned about Hanai family, and I would never have found mine. In Hawaiian, hanai means to adopt, to be close to, to nourish, to sustain. It was not an uncommon practice among Hawaiians newlyweds to practice the hanai custom by bestowing upon their parents their first born child to be raised by them. Children whose parents were unable to care for them were also given hanai parents, perhaps outside of their blood relations. It was seen as a blessing to the hanai parents, to be given the opportunity to care for and love a child that did not come from their union. The concept of family, or ohana, extended to all members of the society: we are all in this together, we who are bonded by blood or by love, it makes no difference. My hanai mom (really, I have more than one), like my sisters, has no qualms about our relationship. We’re family, with all the rights, privileges,  and responsibilities therein. Period, end of discussion.

It’s funny to think: I had to wind up a million miles from home, in a place I never anticipated I would go, surrounded by people I didn’t even know ten years ago, in order to find my family. My home.

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