Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What I Learned From Grandma

My husband David's grandmother, Maurine Brannigan, died last Friday. I felt closer to her than to my own grandparents as an adult, and I'm devastated. Death can be a great teacher, and naturally leads us to reflect on how the deceased lived his or her life. I don't have to think real hard about what Grandma taught me; the lesson is obvious.

For lack of a better term, I came from what I will call a "limited" family. There always seemed to be drama and strife among different branches of our very small clan. I had an extremely insular, stingy view of family. So what an eye-opening experience meeting David's family was! First of all, there are a lot of them. They are loud, but loyal and united. Above all, they are extremely inclusive. The most dramatic example of this the Brannigan's relationship to the adoptive parents of one of David's first cousins. The cousin, Jon, was given up for adoption as an infant and raised by a local family. His biological parents ended up marrying and having two other children. When Jon turned 18, he got back in touch with his biological family. There are many ways this could go, right, most of which is the stuff of talk shows, therapy, and advice columns, right? In the most stunning display of peace and generosity, the Brannigans have bonded tightly with Jon's adoptive parents. They are at every wedding, holiday, and other family celebration. At Jon's wedding, both his biological and adoptive parents were represented in the wedding party.

The Brannigans also easily adopt "strays"; people who don't have any family nearby who are absorbed as naturally as any blood relative. They, too, are invited to every single family gathering. I experienced this open generosity first-hand as an outsider. From the first time I met Grandma and the rest of the family, I felt totally welcome and accepted. This is all the more remarkable to me when I reflect on what a friggin' mess I was back then; angry, self-centered, judgmental, and wearing all of that for the world to see on my 250-pound body.  I feel like they accepted me even when I could not accept myself.

I see this welcoming family culture as Maurine's doing and family legacy. She was the matriarch of the family and set this open-hearted culture. I and many others are the lucky beneficiaries. Very importantly, my exposure to Maurine and the family she led truly changed me and helped me expand my own definition of family for the better. This was not a easy or quick transition; there was no come-to-Jesus moment. In fact, I was initially very overwhelmed and puzzled by the Brannigans' acceptance, openness, and love. I was baffled at how they could have normative relations with Jon's adoptive family. It just seemed, well, wrong. I can only shrug now and see how what I was exposed to in my own family, and what I thought was normal, was comfortable and fit into my little, tiny box labeled "Family: The Way Things Are." I am so grateful that Grandma showed me a more selfless, loving, and inclusive definition of family. It's one that David and I have tried hard to replicate in our own lives, viewing certain friends as "family-by-choice." They are closer than regular friends and no less important to us than blood kin.

I've found myself over the last few days surprised by my grief at Grandma's death, especially in light of the fact that she was not my blood relative. Then I quickly remember that that is exactly the lesson she taught me: blood is thicker than water, but love is thicker than blood.


BeastieSlave said...

I'm so happy that you had this remarkable person in your lives. My heartfelt condolences to you and David. Know I'm always here for you.

Stef said...

I love your last line; what a terrific "belief" to have now internalized, to now have as a part of your very being. What an amazing gift your grandma gave you; and what a wonderful gift you are now giving others. Hugs to you, hon.