One of the most memorable offerings that I received this Valentine's Day was a gigantic red and white card, teeming with colossal, poofy, happy hearts and a warm, loving message signed, "Your Extended Family."
My healthcare plan.
Also known as "the insurance company," three words that I have never remotely associated with "family," extended or otherwise.
Ah, but language changes, either on its own or through design, and there are two significant ways that you can demean or marginalize a word so that it no longer means what it once did:
First, in "Brave New World" fashion (read the book, by the way; it is chillingly prophetic), you can denigrate the word to the point that what was once good, is now bad. In the aforementioned novel, "Mother" becomes rude, offensive, crude and obscene - the M word, so to speak - not so far off the mark when you consider that contemporaneously, state and private forms are replacing the words "Mother" and "Father" with "Parent 1" and "Parent 2."
Thing One and Thing Two - One's Red and One's Blue. Can "Parent 3" and "Parent 4" be far behind?
The second way to destroy a word is to overuse it and dilute it to the point that it means so much, it means nothing at all.
This is what is happening to the term "family," which, however one describes it, holds the distinction of being "a fundamental unit in the organization of society," according to Webster's 1913 dictionary. Interestingly, 1913 Webster's posts as its primary definition for family: "A household, including parents, children, and servants, and, as the case may be, lodgers or boarders."
OK. So Webster wrote before the atomic age, mercifully not incorporating the coldly offensive but aptly descriptive, "nuclear family."
So, although we can establish that family is a flexible term, perhaps we can avoid bending over backwards to the point that we snap our spines, becoming, in effect, spineless:
My health-care plan is not my family, extended or otherwise. Membership to this particular family hinges solely upon a monthly check.
In the same manner, the places where I purchase dish-washing liquid, toilet paper, bananas, crew socks, and grapes are also not my family. Not only are these people not there at 1 a.m. when one of the progeny is an hour over curfew, they are also not there when I need to find the paper plates and napkins aisle.
The Office? Seriously, do you want Dwight to be your brother and Michael Scott your father? Stanley would be an OK uncle on an itinerant basis, but Angela would be downright scary at Thanksgiving if you both brought sweet potato casserole.
Hilary Clinton's Village? It has always been painfully obvious, but never mentioned, that while the traditional African village referenced is made up of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents - people related to one another - Hilary's Utopia consists of social workers, government aides, politicians, medical workers, educational personnel, the police force, lawyers and general administrative staff - none of which are on hand when a child is the only one in the class not asked to the Big Birthday Party.
Religious institutions get a little closer, especially those that incorporate "Brother" and "Sister" into their speech, and I do understand and embrace the concept of the Family of God - but I was nonplussed when the leader of an organization in which we had not participated for three years - and were thereby requesting that our names be removed from the membership list - countered with, "But you're a member of our family ..."
In some ways, family is like great art: "I don't know how to describe it, but I know it when I see it."
It's not enough to say that families are a group of people who love one another - that's warm and fuzzy, but so was my Valentine's Card from the insurance company. Frankly, we all have members in our family tree that are not the apples and pears and peaches of our lives but more of the pits and seeds and bruised, slimy skin - and yet we still acknowledge them as family.
My definition? Families are a group of people who belong to one another in a closed set - a set that can grow, incidentally, through marriage and birth and adoption - but a set that is nonetheless closed. We understand one another, we stand up for one another, and we stand being around one another. We nourish and protect our children in an insulated environment that holds at bay hostile outside forces that seek to damage and destroy them before they can stand on their own.
We are connected by a fusion of bloodlines, shared history, and choice; strengthened by commitment and time; and inextricably intertwined on a level so deep that we overcome distance and circumstance to maintain our identity as a family of relatives and kin.
We are, indeed, THE fundamental unit in the organization of society.
Carolyn Henderson is manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art. Find more of her writing at middleagedplague.wordpress.com.