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Bear and Grandpa


A husband, a wife and some kids is not a family. It’s a terribly vulnerable survival unit.

I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.

They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty or how handsome it was.

Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby…?

[Y]ou take George and Laura Bush, who imagine themselves as a brave, clean-cut little couple. They are surrounded by an enormous extended family, what we should all have — I mean judges, senators, newspaper editors, lawyers, bankers. They are not alone. That they are members of an extended family is one reason they are so comfortable. And I would really, over the long run, hope America would find some way to provide all of our citizens with extended families — a large group of people they could call on for help.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country

That was one of the readings at our wedding, and it has only gotten truer since.

My parents and my sister came to visit this past week, the week after I did the law review write-on, which in turn was the week after the end of exams. In other words, they arrived after six weeks of sheer terror, awfulness, and relentless grind. And of course, when it’s a grind for us, it’s a grind for the kid, too. Six to seven hours a day maintaining a cheerful attitude at daycare, plus another seven or eight hours with adults who are cranky, tired, worried about their career prospects, and desperately in need of some quiet time.

And then in come the grandparents (and the aunt), arriving ex machina like Tolkien’s convenient eagles to turn the tide of the battle. They arrive on airplanes like normal people, and you don’t realize that they are actually magical beings who can transform the terribly vulnerable survival unit back into a family — a rollicking, chattering, happy mob that can take on anything. And the kid (“Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?”) — finally has enough people to talk to, enough people to read him stories and play silly little word games with him in the back seat and keep track of his truck and his plastic rake and his seashell; enough that his parents can breathe; enough that we can be the parents we’d always like to be.


After a week, of course, you remember that families, being people, also come with problems. You don’t agree about everything and you’ve heard each other’s jokes too many times and being there in person it’s impossible to ignore that everybody’s getting older and you don’t have a plan yet for how to take care of each other. Because most Americans, unlike Ibos and Bushes, don’t have 600 people to look out for them — and even the people we do have are perilously spread out. We have a vague notion of moving to New England in a few years to be closer to my parents, but (a) we don’t yet know how we’ll do it, and (b) that still leaves my other sister and her family and Elana’s entire clan spread out across the globe.

Vexing.

But it was a good week, anyway.

World’s smallest Ibo tribe visits the Watts Towers

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