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I can’t remember the last time I spoke to anyone I’m related to.

That realization came crashing down on me after talking to a dear friend last night about the vagaries of family.

Then, as I thought about it, I did remember the last such occasion. On a cross-country adventure in January 2013, I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to be passing through Houston, where there are a lot of Piersons. An impromptu family reunion of sorts was quickly organized, and I was able to spend a few short hours with several of my cousins, their spouses, and their children. I even got to spend a couple nights with one of my uncles, with whom I’d been close as a child and then the connection somehow was diminished.

It really was an awesome time.

The word ‘family’ has always felt like an oddity to me. More to the point – I’m not sure how I relate (no pun intended) to the word at all. I’m the only child of two deceased parents (Dad died in ’98, Mom in ’07). I grew up in Maine, thousands of miles from the nearest next of kin. Holidays were always just the three of us. Other family members only appeared to me on rare occasions throughout the year, their voices coming through the crackling of the telephones in the kitchen or the living room, or through their hastily written Christmas cards arriving in our mailbox. My mother’s mother and one of my British cousins visited us in Maine a couple of times, as did my father’s father and one of my uncles (the same one that I stayed with during my Houston visit). Sure, there have been Facebook exchanges and a very rare email now and again between me and one of my uncles and a couple of my cousins, but aside from these few-and-far-between digital communications, there’s been no other contact between me and my family.

Last night, my friend said, ‘I’m so close with my family. I can’t even imagine that.’

Another friend once said to me years ago, ‘There is the family you’re born into, and then there’s the family you choose, and sometimes they’re the same.’ These days, I do have what I think of as a very loving family: a scattering of people, yes, but dear friends all, complete with their own idiosyncrasies, with whom I feel a mutual and unconditional love and support.

Even though many of them are still among the living, I have often thought of my blood relatives as ghosts of a sort, drifting along the edges of my awareness. Yes, they’re out there, and I do love them and care for them, even though, sadly, many of them really are strangers to me.

And I’m not alone in feeling this way. After bringing it up once to one of my cousins, he agreed, saying, ‘The Piersons just aren’t close.’

So, maybe it’s in our shared genes. A propensity to go it alone, to find our own stubborn way.

But on both sides of the family?

Aside from encounters when I was an infant of which I have no memory, I’d never met or even spoken to my mother’s brother until she died. He traveled to Maine from England for her funeral – his first trip to the US – and though I did spend some very informative and all-too brief time with him in the sanctuary of the church after the service was over, we’ve not had any contact since then.

Then there are the very real ghosts of my parents. No, not their disembodied spirits (I tend to not believe in supernatural things). But it’s the memories of them, the unfinished conversations with them, the never-to-be-had second chances with them, that do truly haunt me.

Tomorrow is Halloween, and it is the birthday of one of my uncles. I probably should call him, but I know how this narrative goes. It’s the one I learned from my parents (especially Dad, from whom I inherited my distaste for talking on the phone), both of whom were at odds in their own ways with their own families, both of whom were haunted by ghosts of their own. It’s the narrative in which I’ll wish my uncle well in my thoughts and think, as I often have, ‘I really should call my grandmother one of these days.’

Here’s to family, and to whatever that word actually means here in the real world outside of Webster’s dictionary.

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