Okay, Washington, DC is a political place.  Still, I was surprised when the woman next to me snapped.  “Those are for families,” the lady behind the desk said.  She meant a particular brochure.  I was picking up a map, and happened to witness the exchange.

“We’re a family,” Snappy responded.

“I mean, families with children,” Desk Lady amended smoothly.

“We don’t have children, but we’re a family,” Snappy said, her voice flat and hard against the other people, the marble, stomping away.  I smiled at Desk Lady.  Ah, a blast from the family values past, right there in the entryway of the National Gallery of Art, just around the corner from twenty Japanese paintings of bodhisattvas sitting on angry elephants and glowing snowslicks and luscious fish.

Recently I was traveling with my family, two fiftysomethings, one of them my biological parent, one my parent by marriage, four of their offspring, all old enough to get into a bar or sign a contract, and one significant other with no legal or blood tie to any of us.

You’d know we were a family because half of us have the same nose, two of us have the same build, sometimes a couple of us held hands or leaned on each other’s shoulders.  We took each other’s photos, and sometimes one of us paid for the others.  Under the stress of the trip, there were some exasperated tears, and at least once we argued and weren’t sure what we were really arguing about.  Maybe that’s the most obvious indicator that we are family.

It’s a great surprise to me that we’ve ended up this family where everyone is a grown-up.  When I was a kid, I thought all families are made up of kids, and that grown-ups without kids were selfish, immature, or maybe just too weird or pathetic to get married.

I remember looking through our church directory, photo after photo of families with their names printed underneath.  Occasionally you would see a solo photo, and I pitied that person.  All alone in the world!  What did she do wrong?  I’ve never had my picture taken for my church directory.  Not that  I made an effort to avoid it.  I already have to sit for a stupid school ID photo every year, sitting in front of that grey marble backdrop.  Once or twice, I’ve gotten a big envelope with wallet-sized copies of that photo.  I can imagine no life circumstance under which I would want to distribute such photos.

I’ve traveled with other groups– groups from church or from work.  For that piece of time, they are my people.  They’re the ones I look for in crowds, to see if they are okay, and if I am okay.  They’re the ones whose phone calls I’m waiting for, whose outfits I’m trying to remember the colors of so that I can spot them.  They’re the ones whose rhythms of language become what I expect, the ones I’m subconsciously adapting my stories for.  Much as I like to think of myself as independent and iconoclastic, I adopt some of their language and their habits.  With the drinkers, I drink, and with the goofier ones, I get weirder.  Whether I spend two days with them or two weeks, they are my people.

It’s always intrigued me, how humans shift those allegiances.  My tribe/not my tribe.  I imagine you might not notice someone who used to be dear to you.  You might not see someone, hear someone, someone your eyes and ears used to strain for.

My boyfriend got off the subway.  This was more than ten years ago.  He was next to me, and then he was across the tracks, on the platform, and then he was covered by the crowd, and then he was gone.  No one else meant anything to me, and he was gone in a way that amazed me.  It’s easy to imagine: you’re looking at a big crowd, but that’s not who you’re looking for, so that’s not who you see.

Aside: After I posted this, I realized I had included the same subway-leaving incident in two subsequent pieces, which means either it was a moment of great emotional significance (it didn’t seem big at the time), or my favorite example of a particular realization and I haven’t found a better one.  Take your pick.

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