I spent my Fourth of July weekend out in Long Island with my best friend and European safari buddy, Jes. She is fully Italian – I’m a lowly halfblood – and the chance to hang out with her boisterous family was as fun and stimulating as you can imagine. As Jes puts it, “We’ll cry and yell and then be laughing the next minute.”
We had our mix of relaxing on the beach, watching fireworks, and oh, there was the excitement when a drunk man walking home from the bar thought Jes’s house was his, and kept trying to open the door, so we had to call the cops on him. You know, usual things like that.
But it was exactly what I needed. And I’m so grateful to Jes and her family that they let me tag along. I love listening to family stories, and picking the brains of older generations for their experiences and advice, especially as I stumble my way through early adulthood.
Sometimes, there are firecrackers in our lives that get in the way of having a conventional family life. Things beyond our control, before we were born. Feuds over things, whether they’re mountains or molehills. Separations, impermanent or permanent. Geographical distance. And then, there’s the question of what really makes a family?
I love reading about unconventional families. I’ll read articles about polyamorous families, or blended families, or communes, intrigued by how people can live so differently.
And some of the best fictional families are quirky too! Snow White lived pretty well with seven dwarves, after all. For many people, having a family is an unspoken necessity on their bucket list. It is on mine, in some form or another. I’ve written about some of my favorite odd families here:
Eloise by Kay Thompson
This spunky six-year-old lives in the Plaza hotel with her darling Nanny (played by the equally darling Julie Andrews in the movie). Her sophisticated mother is constantly off on whirlwind business trips, and is never shown in the books (see – neglectful parenting). But Eloise has the often weary Plaza staff, perplexed hotel guests, and of course, her pug, turtle, and pigeons on her NYC windowsill to keep her company.
Harry Potter by JK Rowling
While the Dursleys’ love for Harry is debatable, he finds a new family in that of the Weasleys, his godfather Sirius, and Hogwarts.
“Well,” said Mrs. Weasley, breathing deeply and looking around the table for support that did not come, “well…I can see I’m going to be overruled. I’ll just say this: Dumbledore must have had his reasons for not wanting Harry to know too much, and speaking as someone who has Harry’s best interests at heart –”
“He’s not your son,” said Sirius quietly.
“He’s as good as,” said Mrs. Weasley fiercely.
Even if you take out the magic, it’s a powerful story about a boy finding love in spite of being an orphan. And I think all of us found a family in this series and the community that sprung up around it. As JK Rowling wrote, “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home”.
Matilda by Roald Dahl
The sleazy, anti-intellectual Wormwoods are proof that the family we’re born into can be like living with Martians. But Matilda manages to find someone who needs a family just as much as she does. Her sweet and quiet teacher Miss Honey welcomes Matilda into her perfect cottage. I can picture the two of them there eternally, reading books among the flowers.
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
Growing up in pre-Civil Rights south, Vivi, Teensy, Necie, and Carol’s family’s all have their demons. From the time they’re young enough to enter a Shirley Temple lookalike contest, the girls cling to each other. War, religion, and – all buffet the girls like pieces of debris in a tornado, but they ground each other.
“Some women pray for their daughters to marry good husbands. I pray that my girls will find girlfriends half as loyal and true as the Ya-Yas.”
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
In this alternate universe, our souls are manifested in animal forms called daemons that stay close to us our entire lives. These companions can change what animal they are until we become teenagers, and they settle into an animal that is the perfect complement to our soul. Lyra doesn’t have much in the way of family, but her daemon Pantalaimon is everything she needs.
I know I’m missing a ton of families from my list. The possibilities are an infinite as human beings are unique. But they’re a good reminder that there is no normal, and that fitting our lives into a box is both unrealistic and obstructive to our happiness.
Family is who you let live in your heart with you.