Inventing A Family When We Need It

“A crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” Isaiah 61:3 

Such as it is to find family.

Marsha and I were sick over Thanksgiving this year and spent the weekend wrapped in cozy blankets, reading, listening to music, and musing over the importance of family in our lives.

In not participating in this annual family gathering we were reminded of the underlying significance of Thanksgiving.

After my morning coffee I found myself gazing out the window thinking of Thanksgivings from years ago.  I could see the faces of my grandparents, Mom and Dad, my brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews and the kaleidoscope of events that marked each occasion as special.

I remembered many Thanksgivings in Chicago where others, unrelated to me, gathered around the table giving thanks for the family we decided to be.

After all, what is Thanksgiving without family?

Then my mind drifted south from our home to the corner of Pacific and Oakes, the site of the Snohomish County Jail.  My thoughts went to the inmates who attend our weekly AA meeting.  How would they be celebrating Thanksgiving?  Life in confinement is, in a word, harsh.  During the holidays the harshness is magnified a thousand-fold, and for most it’s a time of sorrow filled with remorse and regret. 

The Thanksgiving dinner in jail consists of three slices of turkey, roll, stuffing, cranberry jelly and carrots.  The meal is served at five o’clock, the prisoners are locked in their units with only a skeleton crew on duty.  Beyond the meal there is nothing to distinguish the day from any other except for the fact that some inmates band together in their units — as an invented family.

What is Thanksgiving without family?

What I’ve learned is this: When you have no access to your family you invent one.  I distinctly remember a time three decades ago

  • when I invented a family,
  • when I had lost access to my own. 

It was 1985, I had been sober only a few months and was dealing with a mountain of guilt.  At the time I found it impossible to face my family because of the shame I felt.  My family, in truth, cast no such judgement on me.  On the contrary, they wanted only to embrace me.  It was that I was unable to embrace myself.  I was the prodigal son who could not find his way home.

Then my buddy Pete invited me to attend a Thanksgiving dinner with other prodigal sons and daughters, people just like me, all in need of forgiveness for the past and hope for the future.

Thanksgiving 1985 was a turning point in my life.

I discovered how families are not just born of blood but also shared experience.

So it was for friends at the Snohomish County Jail.  At our next Monday meeting the inmates shared how they, too, got together as an invented family and celebrated Thanksgiving together.  They feasted on their three slices of turkey, roll, stuffing, cranberry jelly and carrots, and shared all for which they were thankful.  Proving that a family can always be invented when one is in need of a family.

As I turned my gaze from the window to my dear Marsha curled up on the couch I thanked God for that Thanksgiving Day in 1985, for perhaps without it I’d never have found the love and life I have today.

Marsha and I did not physically share Thanksgiving with our family this year but let me say, in our hearts, it was celebrated with a standing-room-only gathering of family members, blood and chosen.

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.” — Ernest Hemingway

Just a thought…


Copyright © 2019 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.

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