‘You can’t choose relatives but you can choose family’

In a way, Mama taught me to be different. To really hear people when they speak the truths of their heart.

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John Fountain and wife Monica with four of their five children at a birthday celebration last year.

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“Hey Johnny,” my now-deceased Grandpa quipped a few years ago in his cheery voice that sometimes preceded him dropping a wry nugget of wisdom.

“Yeah, Grandpa?” I answered, unsure where he was headed.

“What do you think about putting together a family reunion?”

Hmmm. What I thought was, “I love you, man” but family reunions are a lot of work for whoever organizes them. What I also thought was that a family reunion ought to be more than a party and celebratory annual summer cookout replete with line dancing, Bid Whist, and assorted prayers and ceremonials.


That the niceties exchanged during so-called reunions are sometimes simply window dressing for unresolved, often unspoken hurts and deep divisions that are never dealt with and consequently leave families, after the “reunion,” still fractured. 

“Are you sure you want to know what I really think, Grandpa” I responded.

“Surrrre, Johnny ... ”

“Family is only family when it does what family does,” I told him. “There can be no reunion without reconciliation; no reconciliation without forgiveness and repentance; and no forgiveness and repentance without confession and acknowledgement…”

In my mind, too often “family” is wrapped up in dysfunction. Too often we refuse to wrestle with difficult truths, hurts and issues that run deep like a river and that divide once thought-to-be inseparable families.

And that dysfunction, as far as I can see, ignores familial breaches. Attempts to gloss over them while ignoring hurts and divisions that sometimes glare, like a passed-out drunken father lying in his own vomit that we all choose to step over and act as if we don’t see. And it all leaves families broken.

Mama used to say: “John, you can’t choose family ... ”

“Yes, you can, Ma,” I eventually came to answer her. “You can’t choose relatives but you can choose family ... ”

Life has taught me that.

How I wished at times that Mama had been able to separate herself from those “family” who had inflicted some of her deepest pain. How I wish she could have just stepped back and surrounded herself with those — related by blood or not — who celebrated rather than tolerated her.

With those who respected who she was and who delighted to be in her presence rather than being aggravated or vexed by it.

With those who might kiss her with kind words of adoration rather than impugn, dismiss or curse her behind her back, harboring petty jealousies and mean spiritedness. With those who had no axe to grind and harbored no secret hate.

Family caused my mother a lot of pain. Family broke her heart. Family left her with a trail of tears from which I‘m not sure she ever recovered.

In a way, Mama taught me to be different. To really hear people when they speak the truths of their heart. To hear others, even in their silence, especially in their silence, when they do not call out wrongs and are therefore complicit.

To see people when they show themselves. And to believe what I see.

And finally, to accept the truth that “family” for so many of us is only a figment of our imagination. That true family isn’t necessarily about bloodlines but our own creation of safe people and spaces — nurturing and loving enclaves that provide respite, rejuvenation and restoration.

Mama taught me to choose “family.” Life taught me the true meaning of that word. I will always choose family by my presence in some places and by my absence in others.

I told Grandpa that this one time I would host the family reunion — because of love. And because he was and always will be family.

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