Dear Sean

DEAR SEAN:

My mom doesn’t want anything to do with me, I haven’t seen her in like six years, and she doesn’t even wanna meet her granddaughter, my daughter. I feel so alone and just, like, I don’t know. I don’t have any family who cares. Why are families so [bleeped] up?

Sorry I cussed,
FAMILY-LESS-IN-CHICAGO

DEAR FAMILY-LESS:

When I was growing up, there was an embroidered proverb hanging in my aunt’s laundry room. Framed in glass. The text read: “You can’t choose your family.”

I remember this because when I was supposed to be folding clothes I would be looking at it, thinking about what it meant. This is one of the first things I learned how to read, ironically.

I always wondered why anyone would go to the trouble of embroidering such an obvious statement.

I mean, hello? People can’t choose their family? This is no newsflash. So why embroider it? This would be like embroidering: “Yes, you can eat pickles.” Or “Your mother’s brother is also your uncle.”

It’s funny what you think about when you’re folding towels. And my aunt was big on folding towels. Her towels had to be just so.

In my life I have since learned that every woman has her own way of folding laundry. My mother, for instance, folded clothes one way. My aunt folded things a different way. And when I got married, I was taught that males should not fold anything because we have the domestic intelligence of lukewarm pizza.

Every time I fold a towel in my house, a random woman appears out of the shadows to unfold my towel and refold it the correct way.

This is also true when it comes to loading the dishwasher.

Dishwasher loading is a sacred art only known by the chosen sages who walk among us. Once, at my in-laws’ house, I literally saw the same dishwasher reloaded five or six times.

It went like this:

My brother-in-law loaded the dishwasher. A few moments later, his wife reloaded it the correct way. Then her sister quietly unloaded it and repositioned everything another way.

Whereupon my mother-in-law unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher according to the official dishwasher-loading guidelines put forth by Emily Post in 1492.

That’s when I entered the picture. I tried to place a dirty plate into this same dishwasher and five women attacked me with meat tenderizers.

So what I’m getting at is that I’ve spent a lot of time around women who fold clothes, use heavy appliances, and live according to embroidered proverbs.

And it is from these needle-point proverbs where I learned that family is not something you can control.

“Nobody can love you harder, or make you feel worse than your own family,” I remember my mother once saying.

It’s no secret that I grew up in a screwed up home. Without getting into any colorful details, for most of my life I, too, have felt almost family-less.

I have spent years wondering what it would be like to have a big, joyous, sappy, Andy-Hardy-style family where everyone is so giddy they all share the same underpants.

You should see my neighbors. Their family is like that. They have ridiculously large, festive family parties every few days. There will be 20 cars parked on the street, and people cackling in the yard. Every time I drive by I see people walking toward the door, carrying gifts.

I’ll often lean my head out the vehicle window and ask what’s going on.

They’ll answer, “Oh, it’s our niece’s first birthday. Or: “Didn’t you hear? One of the grandkids lost her tooth last night.”

This makes me so jealous that I start to look like Kermit the Frog.

Because my family is a splintered mess. My father committed suicide when I was a boy. His family was Catholic. And those two things do not go together.

So I don’t know most of my aunts or uncles. And several relatives don’t even remember who I am.

But here’s the thing. This stuff is nobody’s fault. And there is no one to blame here because people are people. You are you. I am me. We are flawed. Mistakes get made. Families get royally messed up. Some fall apart.

But just because your family tree is cattywampus doesn’t mean you can’t have a rich, full life.

Take me. My life has been full. So full that I can’t even begin to describe its fullness to you.

I may be family-less, but I have known strangers who grew closer to me than blood kin. Old men who took me to ballgames and called me “son” in public. I’ve known elderly church ladies who hemmed my pants and called me “baby.”

Some have brought me into their fold and made me believe I was somebody. Others have taken me to their hometowns and declared me adopted.

On the day of my wedding, I was virtually alone, family-wise. Do you know how many biological family members came to my wedding? Three.

But was our little chapel empty? No sir, it was not. The church was so filled that people were standing in the lobby. My heart has never been so full.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you this except to say that right now I’m looking at a framed piece of embroidery. It’s old. It originally came from my aunt’s laundry room.

“You can’t choose your family” it reads. And the proverb is right, you cannot.

But before you get sad about it, you ought to know that there are millions of us out here who would choose you.

And you don’t have to apologize to me for cussing.

We’re family.

34 comments

  1. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - September 1, 2020 7:10 am

    And I love you.

    Reply
  2. Roz H. - September 1, 2020 8:11 am

    Beautiful. And so true. 💐

    Reply
  3. Dee Cullen - September 1, 2020 9:54 am

    Yes, we are all family!

    Reply
  4. elizabethroosje - September 1, 2020 10:09 am

    I love reading Kathleen Norris (and I read a lot of Anne Lamont 10-15 years ago) and one of them (or both?) described a friend who did not have much family or a supportive or present mother, to say the least and that friend grew, herself, into a deep loving mother. I fully believe that our scars don’t stop us from becoming what we ourselves needed for someone else and that, as you write, we can still have many in our lives who love us. I see you, Sean, becoming to others what you needed yourself and that you have been cared for by many. Always hold on to that.

    Reply
  5. TrixC - September 1, 2020 10:29 am

    I think it’s time to get the embroidery basket out and get creative. What a great tip! On a deep metaphysical level, there are some who believe we DO choose our family and the situation we are born into. Either way…we are all connected as one. Thanks for the great read!

    Reply
  6. Meredith Smith - September 1, 2020 10:59 am

    Sean, if you read these comments I wanna thank you for your reply. My sister hasn’t spoken with me for almost 7 years for reasons unknown – and she hasn’t spoken with my brother for over 15 years for reasons unknown. It’s a pattern with her. He and I are very close though. We were all raised the same in a happy loving family, in fact she sees my parents regularly (we’re all spread across the United States) but even my 80 year old parents don’t know her reasons. And my brother & I refuse to get my aging parents tangled into a siblings’ problem. Anyway, you can’t be more on point … you can’t choose your family. I just worry about the day when it’s just the three of us left and how my sister will react. I’ve extended that olive branch so many times …. but she just won’t accept it. I hope she will when the time comes. Thank you again Sean for your insight ~ you let me start my day knowing I am not alone.
    Meredith Smith

    Reply
  7. Naomi Storey - September 1, 2020 11:28 am

    I have decided that every family in the world is dysfunctional; I know mine is. Another thing I know is that you can’t fix it. So many people have so much hatred in their hearts for other people, even their own family. They do not have the ability to forgive even a minor incident and they will take this grudge to the grave with them. If you have done everything that you can to fix it, but they won’t budge, my suggestion is to get another family. There are plenty of people who are willing to be your friends and be more like your family than the family you were born into. That’s what I have had to do. Turn the rest over to God; only He can change people who have hardened their hearts.

    Reply
  8. Marilyn - September 1, 2020 12:00 pm

    Saying a prayer for family – less – people. May you find peace and comfort.

    Reply
  9. Jean P. Stone - September 1, 2020 12:05 pm

    I choose you!

    Reply
  10. Kay Britton - September 1, 2020 12:16 pm

    Sean, I would take you as a son any day! Thank you!

    Reply
  11. Rhonda - September 1, 2020 12:22 pm

    Wish she was down south. I have a heart full of love that needs a job.
    almost can’t remember what its like to be hugged. I hate she has to be made to feel that way. I don’t know the secret. Some families grow love like kudzu and with others its like looking for love in all the wrong places.

    Reply
  12. katherine thomson - September 1, 2020 12:25 pm

    Beautiful – as usual!

    Reply
  13. Ricky - September 1, 2020 12:28 pm

    What can I say. You brighten my day even when it is raining. My family may be scattered all over and none of us are close, I have 2 daughters and 4 grandkids but never get to see them.Through your stories I feel love and care. Please keep up your good work as it enlightens my day. I dont need coffee when I read the stories. Thanks my day is made..

    Reply
  14. Jan - September 1, 2020 12:31 pm

    Family can be difficult because a family is made up of people and as you said, we are all flawed. As I have grown older, I realized that if I can let yesterday go and start fresh each new day with a blank slate for each person, perhaps we can take a new path. Often it is my relentless holding on to disappointments of the past that will not allow me to focus on today. Today is the day that matters!

    Reply
  15. Dianne - September 1, 2020 1:01 pm

    Your column today is a good one. One of my daughters-in-law lost her mother Sunday morning, and we happened to be visiting them for the weekend. I was so glad I could be there to wrap my daughter-in-law in my arms and hopefully give her some comfort. Family is family through thick and thin, through ups and downs, and through spats and make-up hugs. I am blessed with a family that grows larger and larger every year, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. No, we can’t choose our family, but I wouldn’t trade the one I have for all the tea in China.

    Reply
  16. AlaRedClayGirl - September 1, 2020 1:05 pm

    Life becomes somewhat easier once you realize you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond to it. Say and do things that you won’t regret later, and you will have peace in your heart knowing that you did your best.

    Reply
  17. Johnnie Blackburn - September 1, 2020 1:10 pm

    Brother, you make me proud.

    Reply
  18. Kathy - September 1, 2020 1:47 pm

    That’s right! Family is so much bigger than immediate blood relatives. Those who love us are family.

    Reply
  19. Jim Thomssen - September 1, 2020 2:27 pm

    Nicely said. I have 2 sisters, one of which I can still talk to. It’s a long story involving family trips in a wood paneled station wagon, sisters not looking out for each other, little brother as peacemaker and time spent in the desert…. You can’t choose your family. Good friends though, they are family that you get to choose! Good friends are timeless too. If they are friends you can reconnect instantly after years have gone by. I have been lucky enough to do that with a friend from High School recently. Now we are both retired and have the time to talk more. It’s been like no time has paste. How did we get so darn old though? Anyway – Well said and I’d be glad to come over on your dog’s birthday for a party. Can I park on the lawn?

    Reply
  20. Martha Black - September 1, 2020 2:50 pm

    Don’t worry bout the sign or settle for what it says.
    If you’ve can’t get together with family of like DNA
    Just pick members of your own “choosing” & graft ’em in
    You might be better off to grow a new limb on the family tree
    A better strain than where you began……….

    Reply
  21. Robert Chiles - September 1, 2020 3:25 pm

    Dear “Family-less-in-Chicago”
    There’s nothing at all preventing you from being the very best dad in the world to your wonderful daughter. You can always make your own family- much better than the one you came from.

    Reply
  22. Sue Pires - September 1, 2020 4:05 pm

    My friends have become my family, too. It’s true, you can’t pick your relatives. But you can pick your family, which, sometimes, is a whole lot better. Thanks for the smiles.

    Reply
  23. Johnny Bullard - September 1, 2020 4:47 pm

    I loved this article. I love all your articles. You reach out and touch the heart of this small town Southern man each time.
    God Bless you. We need you in daily doses in the world today. You are better than any Rx. You are the medicine for our hearts and souls.
    With appreciation,
    Johnny Bullard
    White Springs, Florida

    Reply
  24. Vasca Beall - September 1, 2020 5:07 pm

    Sean, this is so on target. Imagine my surprise when at 39 years of age I discovered my mom was considering divorcing my dad. Daddy died at a too young age and as I was helping mother by going through paperwork I found a letter stating her intentions. I never mentioned that to anyone else as I didn’t want to break any other hearts. I never learned anything else about that happenstance and never will now that mother has also died. So much unhappiness under the surface in families. It’s best to pick up the pieces and move along doing your best to be kind and loving. Also forgiving and understanding. It’s work but worth it to bring families together…if and when possible. Thank you for your transparency.

    Reply
  25. Linda Moon - September 1, 2020 5:50 pm

    There’s a sign hanging in my laundry room that reads: “The Laundry Room….Sorting Out Life One Load At A Time”. I threw in a load of towels just before I read this New Post. It doesn’t matter to me how the towels will be folded later. I’m too busy sorting out life to spend my time with that. I sort it out with a gingerhead young man who’s so much like you, Sean, a creative family, and two furry cats who occasionally cuss while growling. Welcome to life in our family, Sean, and to Family-Less, too.

    Reply
  26. KATY - September 1, 2020 6:29 pm

    🥰 Meredith, you may want to share my embroidered thought:

    “It’s not personal. It just may be mental illness .”

    May the good Lord bless you with his peace 🤗

    Reply
  27. Teresa Blankenship - September 1, 2020 6:36 pm

    Well said ❤️

    Reply
  28. Mary Anne Weisiger - September 1, 2020 8:14 pm

    Sean Dietrich, YOU are a good man. I’m sure it is not the first time you have heard that, but it is true, still. Thank you for most of what you write. It does bless me to read about Wicksburg( where my AL. Grands go to school, and did),to hear about Taylor ,or the Tomatoe capitol, makes me smile. I know a few of those places because family settled in Al. It almost feels like home. Blessings, Mary Anne

    Reply
  29. turtlekid - September 2, 2020 12:36 am

    Mental illness or misinterpretation is what causes rifts like these mentioned. I know several who refuse to have connections to family. It even happened to us at one time, but after 20 years there was a reconnection. No answers are evident. It is painful. We feel guilty fo no reason. My suggestion is what others have discovered, family doesn’t have to be blood, or genetics. Let that one go, and find another one. God bless you and give you PEACE.

    Reply
  30. Jackie McClung - September 2, 2020 12:55 am

    If I lived anywhere near Chicago I would come see you and your daughter. She could call me Pawpaw, Gramps, Uncle or whatever she came up with. There are other non blood related kids scattered around this nation that have done so many times.

    Reply
  31. Connie - September 2, 2020 1:24 am

    Dear Family-less, I don’t live anywhere near Chicago but I promise you- blood is not always equivalent to family and I “adopt” every kid that comes close to me. Even adult ones with their own children. If you would like to be “family” to an old Southern grandma, I’m sure we can figure out some way to get in touch. Sending big hugs from Alabama.

    Reply
  32. Marcie Emory - September 2, 2020 1:47 am

    I lost my father-law in 2011 and my mother-law in 2016. My husband had a falling out with his 2 brothers after his mom’s death, and no one from his side of the family talked with us for 3 years. Then I lost my husband unexpectedly and suddenly in 2019. Although my family is wonderful and loving and supportive, it makes me sad that I have no one from my husband’s family to share my life with. My sons have cousins that don’t include him in their daily lives. But I have an amazing family of friends, who choose me and my boys every day. They choose us. Every day. And that is what warms my heart, and brings me to tears of happiness, when the other thoughts try to drag me down.

    Reply
  33. Jane Pickett - September 6, 2020 2:59 am

    I love it because we are family!

    Reply
  34. Earle Wright - September 26, 2020 12:00 pm

    One of your best skills as a writer is that your endings always wrap what you’ve written in a bow and bring us back to the start or premise of the article. We’re never left to “dangle” somewhere wondering how we got there and how we are going to get back. It is that skill along with the sometimes outrageous humor and ethos of the South that continues to bring us back. That you can affect people so uniquely is a rare and precious gift.

    Reply

Leave a Comment