When I first moved back to Gadsden, someone asked me what I was going to miss most about Denver. To my reply of, “My urban family,” I received a questioning look. “You know, my URBAN family…the family that you make when you live away from your kinfolk...the family that you make by choice, not by blood.” Still, the questioning look, probably because most folks around here have never had to form an urban family because their own family is right down the road, or living on their property…
If you’ve ever moved away from your hometown, you will understand the need for the urban family. Every stinking time I’ve moved, I’ve left behind a group of individuals whom I have considered to be my urban family, regardless of how urban or rural the location I was leaving; they were the people who, although they didn’t replace my real family, stood in as my surrogate family.
This concept of urban family developed for me when I moved away for the first time to live in Ithaca, NY, which happened to be more rural than where I grew up (Gadsden, AL). I was moving away from my family, away from the south, and moving in with the man to whom I would be married within a month in an elopement ceremony that would divide one side of the family in a rift great enough to require us to fly back to Gadsden within another month to be married in a second ceremony by our priest (and even with that extra dose of marriage, ours eventually didn't last). Within ten minutes of parking in the lot of the Lake Street apartment just a stones throw from Ithaca Falls, I met my downstairs neighbors, Brian and Olga, who would become the core of my urban family in Ithaca (two people who, with twelve years, lots of food and many miles separating us, are still two of my dearest friends). They were the people to whom I turned when I needed help, both physically and mentally, when I didn’t have blood relation around to assist. Olga was from Puerto Rico...would teach me a great deal about Latin music and, even more importantly, about Latin food; Brian was from just up the road (Webster, NY), an architect, and an incredible photographer. Along with Olga and Brian, there was Paul, who would show up on our doorstep with steaks, tequila and his violin whilst “jogging” in our neighborhood (Really Paul, did you make a habit of jogging with steaks, tequila and your violin? And no, I never believed your “jogging” story, but was forever thankful when you stopped in.) There was Donna, a fashion-plate of a young woman who, although 89 pounds soaking wet, could pack away enough food for two adolescent boys, but ate “slow as a muppet;” Donna, who now resides in Manhattan, is one of those friends I can call once a year and pickup where we left off-thank you Donna. There was Donna’s boyfriend Gordon, then professor of English at Cornell (now professor of English at Harvard), one of the leading Miltonists in the country, and coiner of the phrase, “Hold on…I’m having a Shubert moment,” with his martini glass raised. Then there were various other urban family members: Bob and Nancy Morgan (Bob, who was one of Jake’s doctoral committee members and dearest mentors; Bob who, after years of writing very well-received books of poetry and fiction, was lucky enough to have his novel Gap Creek picked by Oprah as a book-of-the-month book and appeared on her television show. How did his life change after that rush of fame? Not too much. He and Nancy moved from the old farmhouse with the pond we used to spend Sundays drinking Scotch beside to an even older farmhouse with an older pond to drink Scotch beside on Sundays). There was C.A., a young woman with the looks of a silent film star, the most fantastic PR skills I’ve ever seen, and the owner of an “heirloom dinner” collection (assorted food items from significant-dinners-past that she had had with family or friends; this collection resided on a bookshelf in her apartment, and was quite a conversation starter). There was Ellen, the young woman who provided a home for me the night before my elopement, took me to a local farm to pick my wedding bouquet of black-eyed-Susans, and then fed me Valerian Root and champagne to sooth my nerves just hours before the nuptials (she was my maid of honor, and sadly, I’ve lost track of her). There was Tony, the young pot-dealer and photographer of Italian and Turkish descent (forgive me if I’m wrong Tony), with gorgeous black waist length hair (he looked like the brief glimpse of Kiser Sose in The Usual Suspects). And then there was Crutchfield, the very talented and rather Napoleonic Appalachian writer who somehow managed to make IT with all the heterosexual females in the English department (as well as the ballet school, the drama department, the textile/fabric department, the criminal justice department, so on an so forth). Crutchfield, along with his family and with Tony, was a witness to, and participant in the first Thanksgiving meal I ever made on my own--a meal of so many dishes that I had to pull out the ironing board to serve off of when the table and the buffet were full; a meal that went on all day and well into the night, even after I had cleared everything away; a gloriously dysfunctional meal that made me so weary, I think I may have fallen asleep at some point between the after-dinner stroll to the Falls and the after dinner drink…I really don’t remember parts of it. These people, all of these wonderfully different people were the key members in my Ithaca urban family. And that diverse cast of characters was drawn together due to the common love of communion, the common love of sharing food and conversation. Ever since the forming of that first urban family, I’ve related most intimately with others through communion.
I’ve had other urban families, one in Auburn…one in Denver. I stayed in touch with most of the members from those long separated groupings. Lately, I’ve felt another urban family forming, one here in Gadsden, a family just as diverse and interesting and supportive as my past families. I think about the future conversations and meals, and when I do, it makes me feel as though I’ve really come home.