In September, my eldest daughter got married. I know this happens in families all the time, but it put me in a reflective mood.
It turns out I had few responsibilities during the actual wedding weekend. I had events to attend, and lots of smiling to do. But actual tasks? Not many. So, I had plenty of time to think about what was actually happening, and most of my thoughts centered on family.
Some say you can’t choose your family, but I disagree. Sure, there is the family you are born into – you don’t choose them. But, you do choose how that family is going to function or – in some cases, sadly – not function. There is also the family you build, and that family is just as important. Friendships and marriages expand the scope of a family, but the essence of what a family means – love, support, strength, laughter and tears – remains. My family is all of these things – blood and marriage and friends and more, joyfully celebrating as we added a new member to our midst.
This complicated family of mine invited thoughts of other families I’ve come to appreciate in the pages of some special books. This month, at The Lamp-Post, we are featuring three books that build on the idea of family, pushing and stretching it to be expansive while remaining intimate. Our books are:
- Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
- Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech
- The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
The Family You Are Born Into
Merci Suárez Changes Gears, Meg Medina’s Newbery Medal winning novel, centers on an extended Cuban-American family living in their South Florida compound, lovingly referred to as Las Casitas. Like so many families, the Suárez clan is dealing with everything from child care for Merci’s twin cousins to elder care for her beloved grandfather, Lolo. And while it might all seem like chaos, everyone has a role to play. Early in the story we learn that Abuela is in charge of worries. (As the chief worrier in my immediate family, and second in the line of succession after my own mother in my extended family, I understand this role to my bones.)
Abuela’s face is twisted in worry, although that’s not unusual on its own. She’s the manager of the Catastrophic Concerns Department in our family, after all, so it’s pretty much her resting face. If you want to know all the ways you can be tragically hurt in everyday life, just talk to Abuela. She keeps a long list – and she doesn’t mind sharing details.
Big Brother Roli is Academic Adviser. Papi is Business Partner. Tía Inés understands fashion and cookies, while Mami insists on practicality and salad. The twin boys, of course, are Comic Relief.
The family story of the novel centers around what happens when one member of the family scaffolding can no longer fulfill his role. Lolo, the patriarch, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. And, because Abuela believes that “children don’t need to hear life’s ugliness,” Merci doesn’t understand what is happening. Her Lolo has always taken the role of Confidante and Cycling Partner, listening to her thoughts on weekly rides to the bakery. How can he play that role when he gets too unsteady to ride and confuses Merci for her Tía?
And so the Suárez family’s delicate structure is tested. The anxiety about Lolo threatens the balance they have so carefully honed. But it is their strong family infrastructure that allows Merci’s family to find a way, changing responsibilities and finding new ways to support each other. In one case, that means an 11-year-old girl stepping up to take on part of her Lolo’s role, plopping her little cousin on her handlebars for a wild ride:
How many rides did Lolo give us over the years? I can’t count them all. But now it’s me who’s pedaling, and Tomás trusts me at every swerve.
The Suárez family has built a structure that can and will withstand challenges by shifting gears and rolling on.
The Family You Expand
In Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech, we are again treated to an intergenerational family taking care of its own. In this case, however, the definition of “its own” expands beyond the bounds of blood and marriage.
The story opens with Rosie fuming about “Bailey, that Bailey!” and his admonition for Rosie to “get over yourself!” As she makes soup with her Granny Torrelli (never just “Granny”), the story unfolds. We learn Bailey lives next door to Rosie, and the two have been friends forever:
Bailey was always there, born next door to me, one week after me, the two of us just two babies growing up side by side, our mothers together, and me and Bailey together, on the lawn, on the porch, on the floor, playing with pots and pans and mud and worms and snow and rain and puddles.
Rosie goes on to describe her relationship with Bailey:
I pretended he was my brother, only he was better than a brother because I chose him and he chose me.
And, in the choosing, Bailey gets Rosie for a sister-friend and he gets Granny Torrelli. His mother, Carmelita, is also included in the deal, swept into the loving Torrelli embrace.
As it turns out, it might be Carmelita who needs this expanded family most of all. As we soon learn, Bailey is blind. Little Rosie and Granny Torrelli accept his blindness and step up to help, but Bailey’s father doesn’t accept it and leaves.
The novel is primarily about Rosie, Bailey, Granny Torrelli, lost loves, jealousy, vengeance, and forgiveness. But the Carmelita sub-plot has always struck me – a young mother finding out that her beloved son is blind, and her husband leaving, and how terrifying that must be.
I picture myself as a young mother, blissfully ignorant of my good fortune to have healthy children with only the occasional childhood malady, and a partner who took to being a Dad as naturally as breathing. It could have been me in Carmelita’s spot if Lady Luck or Fate or God or whoever is running the show had chosen differently. And if it had been me, I hope I would have had a Rosie and a Granny Torrelli to take me in, to be my family. I hope there would have been zuppa and zinnias, oranges with parsley and all the wisdom and love of “Pickleberry Street” where everything is tutto va bene.
I hope there are Granny Torrellis in the world ready to help my daughters should they ever find themselves in need of pasta and strength. And I hope to be a Granny Torrelli (learning as I have from both Sharon Creech and from my family’s matriarch), the kind of person who expands the definition of family to anyone who needs a nourishing pot of soup.
The Family You Build
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown takes the concept of family away from grandparents and cousins and neighbors and friends. When Roz the robot lands on a remote island, she doesn’t have any of those supports. She is completely alone and ill-equipped to make a life for herself in the wilderness. When she first reaches out to the animals of the island, she is viewed with scorn and suspicion.
With no raucous extended family to support her, and no Granny Torrelli to nurture her, Roz has to make her own way. She learns to survive by observing the animals around her and, inspired by a particularly dramatic opossum, mimicking their ways:
Performing could be a survival strategy! If the opossum could pretend to be dead, the robot could pretend to be alive. She could act less robotic and more natural. And if she could pretend to be friendly, she might make some friends. And they might help her live longer and better.
But surviving is not the same as belonging, which Roz soon discovers when she adopts an orphaned goose egg that hatches into the gosling who will come to be known as Brightbill. At first, Roz has no idea how to be a mother. She gets some sage advice from Loudwing, another goose:
“Oh, it’s nothing, you just have to provide the gosling with food and water and shelter, make him feel loved but don’t pamper him too much, keep him away from danger, and make sure he learns to walk and talk and swim and fly and get along with others and look after himself. And that’s really all there is to motherhood!”
And with that, Roz becomes a mother, Brightbill becomes a son, and together they become a family. Eventually, Roz becomes the center of an expanding family as she shelters other animals from a brutal winter. She may not make soup or pasta, but she welcomes the cold and scared animals into her Nest, building a larger family with her shelter and care.
A unit that starts with a robot and gosling might not seem like a conventional family, but maybe that’s the point. The definition of family has, thankfully, moved beyond the Ozzie and Harriet formula that was for too long held up as the American ideal. As Todd Parr so colorfully shows in his feast for the eyes and heart – The Family Book – families come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. After showing lots of different kinds of families, Todd concludes his tribute with:
There are lots of different ways to be a family. Your family is special no matter what kind it is. Love, Todd
And, that’s what all of these books are saying to young readers. Your family might be big and loud and everywhere. It might include a surrogate grandparent and sister. Or you might have to build your own. What matters is that a family surrounds you with love and support, not just bloodlines and marriages.
The first grade teacher in Emily Jenkins’ delightful Harry Versus the First 100 Days of School shows her understanding of this fundamental truth. Instead of the tired and somewhat problematic Family Tree, Ms. Peek-Schnitzel assigns a Family Circle – a set of concentric rings that represent important people in a child’s life, starting with other children, then adults, and then elders. I love this idea because it includes all important people – “real” family and created family – equally as they surround a child.
And now my complicated born-married-built family has added a new member to our concentric rings. I am confident that our hearts have room and our scaffolding is strong enough for the laughter and tears that await.