Earlier this month I spent three days in Colorado visiting enough relatives to populate a small village. My mother is one of eight children: five sisters, three brothers. Now, the great thing about these eight is that they're all wonderfully clever. The perhaps less great thing is that they all know it. Don't get me wrong; they're a very fun bunch and there's always lots of laughter, but things reach a competitive level that leaves some of us caught in a crossfire, innocent bystanders in a repartee bombardment. It's like a perpetual game of hot potato, the potato being regular, joke-free conversation.
One of my aunts in particular, however, is quieter than all the rest. While her wit is sharp, she seems to keep it mostly to herself (or at least her immediate neighbor). I made this observation to her, wondering how she could have possibly ended up this way, so remarkably mild-mannered in a joke-eat-joke family. She hmm'd on that for a moment and suggested perhaps it was a result of being the third born and never having to speak for herself as a little kid because her two older siblings did all the talking for her. "Her's hungry," they'd say. "Her wants more spaghetti."
One day, as the story goes, the silent child spoke. I don't remember what she said, but the two older siblings ran into the house eagerly reporting, "Her talks! Her talks!" Now, let me just say that I don't know exactly how old these two were at the time... but somehow everyone overcame the apparent yokel vernacular and they've all grown up to be not only jokesters, but writers and, you might say, wordsmiths. In fact, "her" went on to recently place 5th in the AARP's National Spelling Bee (who knew there was such a thing?). As it turns out, her spells.
I sat with my thoughts this evening on my commute home, my mind coming to rest on this family that I love but have never known all that well. My aunts and uncles -- never the prominent figures in my life that they might have been had we lived nearby -- I've now begun to see as more than just relatives I've always known were there. Just, there.
I know that these faces have been present from my earliest moments, that their steady love has followed me patiently over the years. And I now know more than I once did that the love they carry with them through the world, the words they spell, sentences they string together and jokes they lob into the air, that all of it truly is somehow a part of me. Somehow woven into my bones and skin, into my own words and sentences, my own stories. I've long felt that a blood or familial relation does not mean a relationship, but I've come to believe more and more that it does mean, unmistakably, a piece of my identity.
Identity. I-D-E-N-T-I-T-Y. Identity.