Found (by) Family: The Grafted Family Tree
Honoring Mima and Mãe Tete
Dear Mima and Mãe Tete,
You’re the unexpected branches grafted into my family tree. Or maybe I’m the new one in yours. Either way, what's true is that even though we didn't start out as family, we ended up there. We don’t need DNA tests or marriage certificates to prove these bonds. Geneticists and genealogists may disagree, but in my mind, we’re forever family.
After all, grafted bonds are not only strong, they produce some gorgeous fruit. (I think even my own mother will back me up on that. She was the one who taught me how to be found by family in the first place.) I’ve heard these kinds of relationships described as fictive kin or found family. I love both those terms. What we’ve become to each other is both created and new (fictive) and yet feels so natural, it’s almost as if we were lost before we found each other.
Found family has been part of my life from as far back as I can remember. My parents set up their life together in a new state far from their families of origin. My siblings and I saw our grandparents, aunts, and uncles infrequently. All except one. Aunt Sandy was a key figure in my childhood. One of my earliest memories is being about 4 years old and spending the night at her house. I remember the sunken living room glowing blue from the glow of the nightlights she put up…and my parents returning with a new baby wrapped in pink and bursting with dark curls. Our newest sister. It was years and years later before I realized that Aunt Sandy wasn’t related to us in the traditional sense. We didn't share any ancestral ties. It didn't matter. She was family through and through...because she’d chosen us. And we chose to love her back.
One of the most brilliant and also completely foolish things I’ve ever done was to move into a favela community in Rio de Janeiro. On the local news or in the international media, a favela was described as the worst possible place a person could live. But because of you, Mãe Tete, and your amazing family, it was one of the best places I’ve lived. Without you, I probably would have crawled home after the first few months.
Imagine me, isolated and lonely in a new country, a continent away from home. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil will be my back-and-forth home for the next decade, but when you met me, I was barely coherent in your language, only able to have conversations by thumbing frantically through a bilingual dictionary. I was the lone foreigner sitting in the back pew at your church, the odd gringa shopping at the local market. And I was your daughter’s quirky new friend who worked with homeless youth and taught at the afterschool program in the really, really dangerous part of town...
You saw me, a stranger, and scooped me into your arms, stuffed me full of farofa and feijão, and gave me a safe place to become as Brazilian as I’ll ever be. You gave me advice on everything: from Portuguese conjugations and love...to the proper way to dice onions impossibly small. You were patient with me, speaking slowly so I could capture every word and waiting gently as I composed my answers. You made me take care of myself. In your home, I learned to set work aside and just relax. I didn’t always have to be striving. (It's taken me another 15 years or so to learn that lesson, but it's finally taken, Mãe!) There were no visiting hours; your home was open whenever.
When I met my husband, I think you may have floated off the ground a little in exultation! Like a good mother, you desired the best for your children. All of them, even me. When our son was born, it was without hesitation that I requested he be presented at your church. I’ll never forget the look of confusion on the pastor’s face when he called for our family to come on stage. How you leaped up, grabbed our hands, and proudly proclaimed, “This is my daughter!”
That pastor may not have understood, but he didn’t have to. We were family. Always will be. Thank you, Mãe Tete, for finding me. Te amo infinitamente!
When I left Brazil, it was to move as a new mother to a new state, far away from family. Again. And again, improbably, I was found. Just as Sandy was a lifeline for my own mother, Mima, you were mine.
In the apartment complex where we both lived, our paths often crossed. We discovered we even attended the same church and began carpooling. It was nice having someone to talk to; my husband worked a lot and traveled, and I was so busy with our international move and a newborn baby and overseeing a house build that I didn't get to talk to other adults much. When you offered to watch the children and insisted I needed to take time to care for myself, I resisted.
It was hard for me to accept gifts and help from others. I was trained to give, give, give but not impose my needs on others. Wasn't it time for me to be independent by now, to not need any help? It was one thing when I was a foreigner in a strange country. But this was technically my home. I should have been taking care of you.
But little by little, I learned to let go. As we bonded, over music, over art, over the joy of playing with the kids, I learned to accept what you were offering: unconditional love. You were claiming us, and you didn't need anything in return. We weren't an imposition. You just loved me and my kiddos. And they did love going to Mima’s place. Why wouldn’t they? You spoiled them silly. (Just like Aunt Sandy spoiled me all those years ago.)
I tried to spoil you as well, but you always turned it back on me. Remember that antique chair you asked me to reupholster? How I found the perfect fabric, so you, all yellow and cheer and covered in birds. I fixed that chair, made it as perfect as I could, and then discovered you weren't going to take it with you. "A gift for my grandbaby," you insisted. And so the chair has a place of honor in our home. Every time someone sits on it, we remember Mima. And smile.
Recently, I found a half-nonsense poem I wrote down from the children’s conversation after one of your visits. One of the lines, “Oh Mima, Mima, mima, mamma mima, how we miss ya, ya wanna hug her tight, ya wanna squeeze her close” must have come directly from their mouths. When life moved you away from us, it hurt. Oh Mima, how we miss ya!
I miss sitting around and talking about everything under the sun. I miss hearing your laugh and learning about your life in the islands before you moved to the United States. You’ve never forgotten a single birthday, Christmas, or Easter. And we will never, ever forget you, Mima.
Sometimes I wonder what drew Sandy to my mother, or Mãe Tete and Mima to me. Maybe it was fate. Or maybe they just saw someone they could love into. Someday, I’m going to be like them. A woman will come into my life who needs to be squeezed into our family tree. And then it will be my turn to build on the foundation of love and hospitality that’s my inheritance from this chosen family...and just like you amazing, wonderful women chose me...I’ll choose her.