I reflected back on how when I was sick she would soothingly rub my feet, hum a comforting tune, and spoon-feed me homemade chicken noodle soup. I counted on Mom to care for me. And technically, she still can. Mom is a healthy, vibrant 75 year-old, always willing and able to lend a helping hand.
Yet when I awoke from a feverish nap, having swallowed my last Thera-flu six hours prior, it didn’t enter my mind to call her for help. She lives 2600 miles away. What was she going to do, sing me a lullaby and squeeze an aspirin through the phone?
Fifteen years ago, my husband and I were faced with a life-altering question—loyalty to family, or loyalty to the job? The bank that employed him in Los Angeles closed down the office and offered to relocate him to their New York office. While I was close to my family, I understood that choosing to live near them wouldn’t pay the mortgage. So, following the paycheck, we picked up and replanted ourselves on the Right Coast.
Now I was experiencing one of the many repercussions of living away from my family. I needed relief, in comfort and in pill form, and my parents were a six-hour flight away from the local drug store and me. So, I did what was becoming more and more natural to me. Like a “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” contestant, I chose the Phone-A-Friend lifeline. Fifteen minutes later, Maria was at my doorstep, meds in hand with a side of Gatorade to keep me hydrated and some soup to keep me nourished. Not only did she bring provisions, but she also picked up my son from school and drove him to his tennis lesson.
I have come to rely on friendship instead of kinship for daily support. When listing emergency contacts on my children’s school forms, I designate a friend; when a medical procedure warrants a chaperone, I enlist a friend; when I need parenting advice, I ask a friend. Even when I gave birth to my youngest daughter in my living room during an unplanned home delivery, it’s a friend I called to help until the paramedics arrived.
Friends have come to serve an increasingly important function in our lives. They are there to mourn with us, celebrate with us, and commiserate with us. I recently attended three funerals for friends’ parents and grandparents. When one friend had no family to make a shiva minyan to meet the quota for a proper Jewish memorial service in her home, friends rallied to make phone calls and soon the house was bulging with other friends and congregants.
A few years ago, in richer economic times, I splurged and invited 80 friends to my 40th birthday luau where we partied the night away eating Polynesian shrimp kabobs and sipping strawberry daiquiris, to a backdrop of hip swaying hula dancers and muscled male flame throwers.
In these leaner times, my brother invited neighbors to a “Recession” holiday block party “to celebrate the significant depreciation of your assets and massive reduction of your net worth.” The menu promised “Sub-Prime rib, AIG Nogg, Paulson Lemon TARPS (made of Bernanke dough), and GM&M cookies (“Get here early for these, they won’t last long!” he warned.)
The invitation was a flyer, hand delivered, not mailed, and the party was potluck style, with “the lowest class contributions” requested. One guest brought a half-eaten bag of stale potato chips. The party was a smash, and friends shared layoff stories and offered one another support.
Our increasingly open society gives us license to share with friends a wider range of personal issues such as finances and health previously reserved for family alone.
Mind you, friends don’t replace family. My husband and I cherish celebrating special occasions and events with my parents, who visit for five weeks bi-annually, and loyally attend our children’s piano recitals, tennis matches, and graduation parties. We value our holiday traditions with them and have come to expect things like an overabundance of gifts on birthdays, my father lecturing my ten year old about the importance of a 401K, and Thanksgiving with Grandma’s signature green Jell-O.
I do, however, often feel left out of the mix. It saddens me to miss out on some of my family customs that my siblings still regularly enjoy with my parents, the kind I can’t duplicate with friends, like Sunday night home movies or the relentless quest to discover the hidden ingredient in Great Grandma’s oatmeal cookies. While I may outgrow friends, I’ll never outgrow family.
But in many ways, friends have become the new family. They serve as a surrogate family in a daily existence that no longer relies on familial communal living as our ancestors did. We laugh together, cry together, and even play practical jokes on each other.
Blood may run thicker than water, and I don’t expect that my friends will massage my feet or spoon-feed me chicken soup like Mom used to, but in today’s transient culture where we follow our careers and not necessarily our families, I feel grateful to have friends I can count on.
Have you been faced with the dilemma, “loyalty to family or loyalty to job?” If so, how did you cope?
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(An abridged version of this piece was published in Hometown Quarterly, Spring 2012)