Different types of family exist. We have blood family, and social family. We have immediate and extended families. We have intact families and broken families –and reformed families that are blended or mixed.
We have happy families and unhappy families and deeply troubled families. We have the families that we start with and the families that we end with. We have families that are built by birth, by adoption, by marriage, and by choice. We have temporary families and forever families. We have the family that we know and the family that we don’t — or maybe we have the family that we know, and the family that we know too well.
Do they all count? Do they all matter when doing family history? For me, yes. And part of that is because I am a product of my times and my times have seen the validation of all sorts of family forms. It used to be that a married husband and wife were the only acceptable foundation for family life — which is why my grandmother turned from her favorite sister, my great aunt Mary.
Mary served her country in World War II, built a career as a nurse, handcrafted Christmas ornaments for my family, and failed to accept a single suitor’s proposal even though my grandmother says that she had more than a few.
In the end my grandmother responded to social norms in a rather predictable way. She could have held her favorite sister tighter. But Nanny married in 1941 and fell sway to both the expectations of companionate marriage and the return to ‘traditional’ family life. She didn’t realize that family forms shift over time in response to changing economic and philosophical needs* — and ultimately, Nanny could only embrace those who had made the same choices she had.
Me, I love my great aunt Mary even though I can’t recall knowing her. I love that her story isn’t traditional. And I love that her story is one that reflects an individual’s unique responses to the expectations, obstacles, and opportunities of an ordinary life.
*Here is a concise overview of American family history.