September 28, 2007

Nichols family-by-choice reunion

John Nichols and his "big sister"
    Unless you have heard me gushing about Stella, my decades-long spiritual mother, you wouldn’t understand why John introduced me to his Atlanta friend as “my big sister” when he was in town visiting from his home in Hawaii. Looking at our faces (shown in the photo), you’d wonder, How? What’s up with that?

Simple. In the late 1960s, when I launched my first career as an early childhood educator, in Cambridge, MA, I met John, his ten siblings, and their parents, Joe and Stella Nichols. And I immediately claimed them as mine. Since then, neither time, distance, life, nor death has changed this belonging. So, I rearranged my schedule on short notice to catch up with my brother-visitor on his East Coast tour seeking galleries, institutions, festivals, and marketplaces to show his art.

Karen, John's youngest sibling, was among my first beautiful and brilliant Head Start preschool students. When Karen arrived on the first day of school with her slightly older sisters Esther and Linda, the elder sisters' expressions read: "What kind of place is this? Who is this child-woman who calls herself teacher?" Today, Karen, who has earned a degree in education from Gallaudet College where she met, then married a fellow student from Nigeria (now, a professor at their alma mater) is mom to three beautiful and brilliant kids.

Esther, John's eldest sibling, raised her family in the home where her parents raised their own family, then sold it and retired to Mashpee, on Cape Cod.

Joe and Stella Nichols in their Cape Cod garden
(during my visit, spring 2004)
Today, at age 87, Joe continues a lifetime of gardening, fishing, keeping bees, preparing meals (and sharing his bounty with neighbors and guests), visiting shut-ins and nursing home residents, ministering to his flock, mentoring new church leadership, and welcoming family, friends, and seekers of his light.

The night before Yom Kippur we spoke, among other topics, about Unetaneh Tokef, a signature Hebrew prayer in the High Holy Day liturgy, and then Joe asked me to read it aloud in English translation. We spoke our usual brief time — more than an hour, and only ending the call because of my bedtime!

Stella, the woman whom I called "Inspiration" since our meeting that first Head Start year for Karen and for me, died 21 months ago, at age 83. She remains a tree of life — many roots, many branches, and my beloved surrogate parent, adored sister, treasured friend — a permanent force for good.

Family. Tracing blood lines is one way to define family. Marriage confers a family status, too. And then, there is a family of choice, the one we populate with people whom we claim and who claim us. It is easy to accomplish. Just reach across artificial divides. Remain open. And, only connect.

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Blogging Molly said...

I love the saying "Friends are the family you choose". Even my small children understand this extension and have started calling my friend's children "cousins". Thank you for sharing your family and the reminder to connect.

Tamar Orvell said...

My friend's first grader slept over his best friend's house Saturday night. I asked him Sunday morning, what was the best part of being with your friend? He replied instantly: playing brothers.

Thanks, Molly, for visiting Only Connect!