The word “family” comes from a Latin root meaning “servant, slave.”
You never know if the guy you’re talking to is telling you the absolute truth or an abject lie. For once, though, I’m telling you the absolute truth—which I found on my favorite website, www.etymonline.com.
Words are like people: they change and grow, and sometimes you can’t recognize them anymore (particularly after you haven’t seen them for five centuries). Although we might claim, half-jokingly, that some family bonds recreate master-slave relationships, we can safely say that “slave” as the original meaning of the word “famulus / family” has long disappeared from our awareness. And if we aren’t aware of something, it doesn’t exist for us.
These days, when we think “family” we tend to think first and foremost of our immediate blood relations: parents and grandparents, siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins. Starting from these immediate relations, we build a net that includes spouses, in-laws, the husband of the sister of your father’s brother’s wife, and a thousand other characters.
Like with so many symbolically powerful words, we also use “family” in a variety of meaningful ways. For instance, the violin family of bowed instruments, which includes the violin itself, the viola, the cello, the bass, the gamba, the rebec, the baryton, the nyckelharpa, the dīyīngéhú, and—well, a bunch of others. But not the guitar; no, not the guitar. It’s not from our family. “Plucked,” not “bowed.” Let them pluckers stay with them pluckers.
Believe it or not, this post isn’t about slaves or pluckers. It’s about your other family. I don’t mean your wife number 2, about which number 1 knows nothing. I mean the men and women in your life to whom you feel very close, so close that you consider them like a brother, like a sister, like a father, like a mother; like an uncle, like an aunt, like a cousin . . . My mother’s best friend was like a sister to her; we children called her Auntie, and we made no distinction between her and the aunties with whom we shared biological ancestors.
This non-blood, non-biological, non-inheritance, non-tax, non- non-family is as real as the blood one. And, like the blood one, it comes with responsibilities and obligations. To begin with, we’re obliged to “be aware of this family, so that it exists.”
As an adult, I met a woman of wisdom and wit who’s been helpful to me over more than two decades. She’s a bit older than me, and she’s my favorite aunt.
In the past, I’ve blogged about my piano teacher Alexandre, who besides being a student of mine is also a friend and a beloved brother.
In the American hinterland there lives a cellist I’ve known forever. She gets me; with her, I can open up and babble on incoherently, and she’ll misunderstand me ever so tenderly. She’s a very special sister to me. And her husband too is my dear brother. Ops! Does that mean that my brother and my sister are in an incestuous marriage? Nah. It means I love the two of them, that’s all.
My second family has about ten siblings and aunts and uncles, and maybe twenty cousins. They include an older brother in New York City, a younger brother in London, a brother in the Lake District, a sister in Paris, another sister in Paris; a brother in Massachusetts whom I haven’t seen in several years but with whom I feel permanently intimate and comfortable, a fellow in Glasgow, a fellow in Chicago, a brother in São Paulo—I mean, besides my four awesome flesh-and-bones blood brothers and sisters in São Paulo.
Guitars don’t belong in the bowed-instrument family, but guitars and violins do belong together in the larger musical-instrument family. Start thinking this way, and you’ll soon see that everything belongs in the everything family. Counting all souls past, present, and future, your family is pretty big. It’s a bit impractical to invite them all to the party, so we limit the invitations to what the party bus can hold.
©2019, Pedro de Alcantara