What makes a family?

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated July 18, 2010 12:00 AM
Illustration By REY RIVERA

I once read a story about Barry Manilow and how he got the surprise of his life when his father — whom he had never before seen because he abandoned Barry’s mom when she was pregnant — suddenly showed up in his dressing room after a show and introduced himself. Later, in an interview, Manilow said he felt no connection with the man who was his biological father but who was not there when he was growing up.

I know people who were adopted by foster parents whom they had no blood relation with. They are lucky to have landed with people who, though not related to them in any way, were dedicated to them and loved them. I have a classmate who, after years of trying and failing to have a child with his wife, finally decided to adopt a Caucasian girl, and later, a Filipina child. One day, when his daughters were old enough and confronted him and his wife about their origins and how they ended up as a family, he calmly explained that biology alone is not a prerequisite for people to relate as family members. More than biology, it was love that brought them all together as a “family.”

I am so lucky to belong to a family whose members not only love each other but also genuinely enjoy each other’s company. And a big happy family attracts its member’s friends, cousins and other strangers in a vortex of belongingness, making for an even larger extended family.

My wife Lydia’s family is the same. Their house, like ours, was a place where people felt at home. It was a comfort zone where classmates, friends, cousins, suitors spent countless hours just hanging out, and ate countless meals and snacks in between.

In high school, I had a classmate who lived near our house. He came to visit me one day and did not leave for the entire summer. He would go home just to get clothes and return promptly to our house. He slept in a room I shared with two of my brothers, had his laundry done by our laundry woman, and found his place at our family table. Somehow, he felt loved by us and that made him feel at home.

In our house, we had aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and friends who stayed with us, some for long periods while others would just sleep over occasionally. Somehow, they caught the good vibes our family and home must have exuded and they felt good to be a part of it.

Years later, many of them continue to keep in touch and remain “in the loop,” so to speak. When we get together, which isn’t often, it seems like the years apart have not changed anything. One might say our common experiences when we were kids have bonded us permanently. It’s simply wonderful.

It is sad to hear about families whose members are estranged from one another, families where parents and children do not get along. I feel that one of the biggest tragedies anyone can experience is to belong to a family which not only fails to nurture its members in a loving way but also promotes deep enmity and even hatred for each other.

Even if it is hard to understand how that happens, we know that such cases have been around since time immemorial. In the Bible, there is the story of Cain who killed Abel, and Joseph who was thrown into a well by his brothers. Woe it is to siblings or parents and their children who come into this world as a family unit but live their lives in misery and mistrust.

For sure, even happy families have their share of quarrels. Nothing is perfect. But, as writer Mignon McLaughlin put it, “Family quarrels have a total bitterness unmatched by others. Yet it sometimes happens that they also have a kind of tang, a pleasantness beneath the unpleasantness, based on the tacit understanding that this is not for keeps; that any limb you climb out on will still be there later for you to climb back.” And therein lies the difference.

What makes a happy family? Fr. Peyton, a Catholic priest who ran the Family Rosary Crusade on TV in the 1960s, espoused the familiar mantra: “A family that prays together stays together.” There is a lot of truth in that. Faith and prayer can open the hearts of people and make them not only more loving but also easier to love.

I also know that music, laughter, sharing hard times and good times, having meals together, genuine caring and respect, and the simple commitment to attend important family occasions are equally strong bonding ingredients that promote closeness and genuine love in families.

Perhaps as much as we ask what makes happy families, we should also ask what constitutes one. In my observation, any group of people who dedicate themselves to caring and nurturing each other is a “family” in a deep sense, whether or not they are biologically related.

The writer and satirist Emma Bombeck defined her family this way: “We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.”

Any way you read that, it has elements of love tied up with togetherness and the seal of family on it.

Recently, Jane Tenefrancia Umaytiao, a friend and FaceBook buddy, put a post on her site which read, “Sometime after I got home last night until we woke up, our aging Labrador quietly passed away as he slept in the patio. He still came up to the car to greet me last night. Our oldest girl is most affected as the Lab was her dog. We laid him to rest in a portion of our garden. Sad day for the whole family…”

I couldn’t help but be moved. One does not have to be a pet lover to feel the pain of losing a companion in life, even if it was only a dog who is “less than human.” And I know that last phrase is a contentious one and can be open to a big emotional debate.

In the same way that one does not have to be biologically related to have a family experience, one might conclude that love and dedication can come from other life forms and species. I am very sure that Jane and her family felt the loyalty and affection that their Labrador had for them in the many years they were together. The loss of their dog, no doubt, was also the loss of a family member.

Love is the soil that holds a healthy family tree together. The birds that build their nests in the tree and the friends and pets that seek shelter under it are as much a part of the tree’s history as the branches themselves. But the family tree that is not nurtured with love will simply wither and die.

* * *

Workshop announcements:

1) Songwriting Workshop: A lot of people through the years have asked me about writing songs since I have written so many, including hits, over four decades. I have long wanted to conduct a workshop on it. Well, now I finally will.

Date: Aug. 14 and 15

Time: 1 to 6 p.m.

Place: 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, Quezon City

Cost: P5,000

Requirements: Must know how to play an instrument — guitar or piano.

2) Creative For Life: A cutting-edge course to permanently awaken your creativity.

Date: Aug. 2-6, concluding Aug. 9

Time: 7 to 9 p.m.

Place: 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, Quezon City

Cost: P5,000

3) Basic Photography Workshop

Date: Aug. 21

Time: 1 to 7 p.m.

Place: 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, Quezon City

Cost: P3,500

Please write to emailjimp@gmail.com to reserve a slot. Or call 426-5375/ 0916-8554303 and ask for Ollie.

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