Returning to Sit Together

The Rev. Susan Milnor
December 10, 2017

My mother was one of eight siblings to survive infancy, only one of whom, as an adult, did not have children, my Aunt Helen. It was she who became the matriarch of the family when my grandmother died. In summer she spearheaded trips to the Smoky Mountains for swimming and picnics, while every Christmas and Easter found the whole extended clan of siblings and offspring at her house for family dinners, egg hunts, games.

Please don’t imagine an ideal American family. The Tiptons lacked the gene for tact, leading to many painful moments. My sister and I particularly did not, as they say, “have chemistry,” with Aunt Helen. Overall, the family bore many whispered tales of brokenness worthy of Tennessee Williams.

Still, when my aunt and uncle sold their graceful old house to the University of Tennessee, which tore it down to build an aquatic center, it was sad. Years later, I understood that when my parents could not afford the down payment on braces for me, my aunt and uncle footed the bill and that the ritual of their Christmas Eve visit with modest gifts marked the arrival of that magical night. I have returned to my memories enough to understand that extended family provided a center, a home, out of which I grew into my life. Like Alice Walker, I too would like to “return to the porch to sit together,” but time changes families. When my aunt died, no one emerged from the next generation to take her place.

The holidays are upon us, and at this time of year especially, we confront portrayals of traditional happy families that leave many people feeling disappointed, excluded, or depressed. Accepting, supportive families bless their members every single day, but most families are more complex and broken. Divorce, marriage, mobility, social rejection – all these mean that to live in this changing world, many of us must find ways to understand and navigate families or create families that provide those precious kinship ties. Surely an important part of our mission as a Unitarian Universalist congregation is to affirm families of choice as well as families of blood ties, untraditional families as well as traditional ones, broken families as well as whole ones. What a sacred opportunity it is to re-vision “family values” to mean valuing the rich diversity of families that afford kinship. It’s a rare opportunity in life to have it all!

To understand how important this mission is to the future, you must understand the shifting family-scape. The world of families is much more diverse, a fact for which we can be thankful because it marks acceptance. It is also much more single. In 1950, 78% of households consisted of married couples, over half with children. Now nearly one half of Americans eighteen years or older are single. By the time they reach fifty, according to Pew research, a quarter of those who are now young adults now will never have married. This change reflects what is happening across the planet, where single person households have more than doubled since 1980, becoming, in the words of one writer, “the most foundational social unit.” If the prospect of so many single people concerns you, consider this. According to Pew, they volunteer more, become active in civic groups more, care for aging relatives and friends more than partnered people. In my experience, young adults today are amazingly adept at creating family ties among friends.

But this new kinship happens among older people as well. Lucy Whitworth was a retired teacher, a single person, living in an intentional community when a few years ago, at age 68, she was diagnosed with cancer. Immediately, one friend made a list of everything she was going to need, while 48 others divided up all the tasks to be done. They became known as “Lucy’s Angels,” the circle of folk who accompanied her through her treatment.

This congregation too is touched deeply by the diversity. Think of Bruce Deveau’s moving Journey of Faith last week detailing how important it was to him to as a gay person to be welcomed into a UU congregation or consider the child dedication for Judy and Gail Fayer’s foster child Manny this morning. The first time they appeared with Manny last spring, people sat gathered around them, outside the Lower Meeting House for the June picnic, getting to know all three better. It was like sitting on the porch at a family reunion, only it is an extended family of choice.As Judy said to me one day, he’s the “congregation’s baby” too. For my part I realize that Unitarian Universalist congregations have become my extended family of choice, replacing that blood clan that slipped away over time.

Underneath the social realities lies a compelling spiritual truth. Our need for these ties is part of what makes us human. Do you remember the movie “The Martian” from the novel by Andy Weir, so popular just a few years ago? The main character, an American astronaut, finds himself stranded alone on Mars, spaceship crashed, companions gone, supplies running out. He grows plants to provide oxygen and food, does surgery on himself, plays mind games to maintain his sanity, all in the hope of living long enough for a second mission to make it to Mars and return him to the more generous atmosphere and fertility of Earth. Right along with producing food to eat and air to breathe, he shows the greatest determination in devising ways to communicate with earth. He does not give up. It’s a story of heroic survival, but running under the surface is the need to make it home to be with other beings like himself.

Good science fiction always reveals something about us now. In this case life on an alien world becomes a metaphor for the deep spiritual need we have for kinship. And, like the real stories in life, they expose the truth that finding those ties, or redeeming old ones, can be difficult and demanding, a true journey. We often feel alone on the trip and stranded by situation or loss. The arc can be heartbreaking, but the human ability to create those ties is a stunning survival tool. For in the end, we long to be among kindred folk, given or chosen, sitting on the porch, taking stock and sharing the fact that we are all here together. As Alice Walker says, “one of the values of a family . . . is that loneliness is decreased, mysteries explained, company for one’s journey on this planet thankfully acquired.”

Sometimes, we can, like Walker hopes, preserve or redeem our blood ties. In other equally hopeful narratives, we find those who become our family, as did Lucy Whitworth. With open hearts and open minds, traditional families and new families, families of blood and families of choice can together forge a stronger spiritual and social world for all of us.

For some of us in this changing world, the return home comes in surprising ways. A few years ago, I connected on Facebook with one of my first cousins who was always at those family events as well as with her two grown daughters. I never guessed that we shared so many values and concerns, which I not seen in those earlier years, but I would have expected us to share memories. And we have. In online reflections, we have recovered lost stories, seen photographs we’d never viewed before, remembered experiences we had in common. I feel as if I have extended blood family again, even if we must be together in a virtual world.

Don’t lose heart, friends, in this season or in this changing culture. The connections among us, given or chosen, are fragile yet so strong. Our journeys may be hard at times, but for us all, there is a porch somewhere in our universe beckoning us to sit.

DePaulo, Bella. “Families of Choice Are Remaking America.” Nautilus, March 3, 2016.
“The American Family Today.” Pew Research Center, Dec. 17, 2015.
Walker, Alice.“Flawed, Even Broken Families Can Restore us to ourselves." Boston Globe, November 21, 2017.