Finding Family : Up First For many of us, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on what we are grateful for—with the people we love. This week, we travel through the archives and hear from writers, poets, musicians and our own listeners on how they have found strength and understanding through family, be it the one they were born into or the one they created along the way.

Finding Family

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Hey. It's Rachel. And happy early Thanksgiving. Hopefully this means you get a break from work and can surround yourself with people you love, eat good food and spread appreciation everywhere. My siblings and their kids are all coming to my house for the holiday, which is a big deal, not just because I have never in all my adult life cooked Thanksgiving for my whole family. But there is also a new emotional weight, a big emptiness.

This time a year ago, I was in the ICU in a Salt Lake City hospital, watching my dad deteriorate really fast. He'd had this sudden rupture to his aorta, and he ended up dying a couple weeks later. My mom has been gone for a long time. She died of cancer 13 years ago and never got a chance to meet my husband or my kids. Stay with me because I promise all this sad stuff is leading somewhere.

When you lose your parents, the constellation of your family shifts. For me, it's like the stars at the center, the ones that guide you aren't there anymore. So you have to shift your view and look for light in other places. It's the same thing when family relationships break. You find love and acceptance from other people. Friends, even strangers sometimes, which is to me what Thanksgiving is all about - being grateful for the light where you find it, appreciating the family you have and the family you choose.


MARTIN: This is UP FIRST Sunday. And today, I am feeling grateful for the conversations I've had this past year. I'm also feeling grateful for you, for making us a part of your Sundays. Last week, we asked you to share some reflections on how you think about family. Has that changed? Who brings you light? This is some of what you shared.

MICAH CALDWELL: Hi, this is Micah Caldwell (ph) in Chicago, Ill. Over the past couple of years, my idea of family has changed quite a bit. When the pandemic hit, we decided to move back to the Midwest in order to be closer to our families. And with that transition came a lot of other life developments. We were able to buy our first house, which has allowed us to create something of a family with our neighbors and our community. And it also allowed us to have our first child, which has really brought our families, our extended families, closer to us, in addition to expanding our own nuclear family. And so it's felt like something of a reunion to be back in this place and to have this new little person in our lives. And it just feels special. And I can't wait to experience all of these holidays and new experiences through her eyes.

JEFF LUDLUM: Hey there. This is Jeff Ludlum (ph) from San Jose, Calif. My attitude has broadened and diversified these last three years. My family expanded to two households during that first year of pandemic. So now our three children split time 50-50 between their mom's house and my house after the divorce. All told, we have an amiable and cooperative foundation for co-parenting, and we're lucky our kids seem to have adapted to this new reality in a similar way OK. I know I'm appreciative of the fact that we've been able to maintain some sense of family, even with the married relationship coming to an end.

ARITRO: Hi. My name is Aritro (ph). I live in Minneapolis, Minn. It does get tough during the holiday season. Even though I don't celebrate Thanksgiving - I didn't grow up with it - I would see people with their families on social media, or they would travel. But the fact of the matter is that my parents can't travel now because of COVID and visa restrictions and whatnot. So that particular time gets tough. I miss my family. I miss India. I miss the smell. I miss the sound. I miss the food. I miss the language. But my idea of family has not changed. I think it's still the people you call up when you're in trouble. But I'd just moved to Minneapolis. I'd gotten a new bike. And it was cold one night. I was riding it, and I parked it somewhere, and it got stolen. And I was - I started crying. I was alone. And I called up a friend. And he showed up in 15 minutes. And he drove me home. And he consoled me. And I think that's what family is all about.

LIBBY: Hi. My name is Libby (ph). I'm a resident physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. This Thanksgiving, I will be working on our cardiology floor, taking care of patients. It's the first time in my life that I won't be home with my family for Thanksgiving. Fortunately, some of my coresidents have really become like a second family to me. So we'll be having Friendsgiving together for those of us who aren't able to leave to be with our own families.

ROWAN MORGAN: Hello. My name is Rowan Morgan (ph). Rachel posed the question of how, since the beginning of the pandemic and going forward, has your relationship with family changed? And I think I have a little something to say on that. So, you know, this year and from here on out going forward, I will not be in attendance to any of the family gatherings that will be happening, you know, Thanksgiving or Christmas or otherwise. I am no longer a part of that. And that's a decision that I've made for myself that has led me to become more mentally and emotionally well than I have ever been in my entire life. And the family that I have cultivated for myself in the place that I reside now is more supportive and loving and fulfilling than I have ever before experienced.

My little piece of advice is that you don't have to do anything or interact with anybody who makes you feel smaller than who you are. And it doesn't have to be an ugly separation. It can just be something that you say for yourself, and you don't owe justification to anybody else. And the family that you do deserve will come to you. And I've experienced it firsthand. So...

MARTIN: So much of what we heard from you felt like echoes of conversations that we've had on the show. After the break, we'll bring you more listener stories and reflections from some of the authors I talked to this year. Stay with us.


MARTIN: What we heard from our listener, Rowan Morgan, about needing to separate from the family he was born into in order to find a happier version of himself - that was also true for writer David Ambroz. He wrote this incredible memoir titled "A Place Called Home." A large part of it was about the childhood he spent on the streets with his mom and siblings.


DAVID AMBROZ: My mom and my siblings, we have a - we had a dysfunctional but beautiful and profound love for each other. I think when you're - as my mom was, a single mom with three children in poverty and then layer on top mental illness and all of these systems that trapped us - you know, in order to get rent and benefits, you had to have an address. In order to have an address, you had to have rent. In order to apply for food stamps, you needed a place where you could receive mail. It trapped my mom in this cycle of constant need, constant begging herself from the institutions that are supposed to help families like mine. So that distress was a permanent noise in my mom. She constantly had to figure that out and quite often was not able to. And we had to step in from the earliest age I can remember.

My mom was also - you know, mental illness is not something one can predict. And she had various things she struggled with. And it - you just never knew. It could be a day or a week when she would be in a relatively speaking fugue state. Or it could be, you know, hyper, or it could be a place where what I like to think of as the warrior mom who wanted to care for her family was there - always too infrequent on that last one, but certainly present. So there was no one trigger, and anything you did might trigger it, and you just did not know. You might do nothing. But at the same time, you knew it was coming.

MARTIN: You and your siblings just had no clue which version of your mom you were going to get on any given day.

AMBROZ: Yeah, I think love and family love in particular is a perpetual state of forgiveness, right?


WILLIAM: Hi, Rachel and the UP FIRST team. My name is William (ph), and I currently live in San Francisco. I actually grew up in the Caribbean, in the Dominican Republic, and that was my home for a very, very long time. And then I came to the U.S. for college, and I stayed here for work. Yeah, I always felt like my family was my biological family. And I think lately this concept has been changing, or I've been challenging it. I've changed a little bit. I've - you know, I've traveled a lot. I've moved around a lot. Also my brother - he's a substance abuser. And that has really had a very difficult impact on our family dynamic and the way we relate to each other and how much space there is for me and my sister and my mom and my dad to actually, like, have a relationship. You know, a lot of things end up being about him. And yeah, I also - yeah, I went through a very difficult period of my life four years ago where I went through a divorce. I was married, and I felt like I had a family. Yeah, I felt very, very loved. And, after that, my world upturned. When I had a divorce, my world turned upside down, and I felt very lost. And sometimes I do still feel very lost.

MARTIN: I get that. All of us feel lost at different times in our lives, right? But when someone you love dies or a relationship ends, it is like a great unmooring. You can't find a foothold to keep you steady. You have no idea what direction you're supposed to go, and the world feels incredibly lonely. In Javier Zamora's memoir, "Solito," he writes about the journey that he made from his home in El Salvador all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border without any of his family. He was just 9 years old at the time. His mom and dad had left for the U.S. years before to escape the civil war in their home country, as did so many others.


JAVIER ZAMORA: The most poignant days of the year were Mother and Father's Days, because all the kids that I grew up with, we - before first grade, everybody - it seemed like everybody only had one parent, and usually that was the father who was gone. And in hindsight, that was probably because of the war. As second grade, third grade, fourth grade kicked in, I wasn't the only kid who didn't have both my mom and my dad. And so our grandparents were the ones that kept on showing up to Father's Day and Mother's Day. We were all a generation raised by our grandparents. And sadly, this wasn't the only town where that was happening in El Salvador. And it's happened all over, and all these children who didn't have their parents, and all we wanted was to be with our parents.

MARTIN: What memories of your mom were you left with?

ZAMORA: In another country, like this country, my mom would have been diagnosed with postpartum. And so some of the - my initial memories with my mom were not the kindest of memories.


ZAMORA: But still, even though I didn't have a rose-colored childhood with my mom, I still missed her hand through my hair, her changing me in the morning, her helping me with homework, which she was always school-focused. So she had this little blackboard that she brought out front where she would make me do homework and then her own type of homework.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ZAMORA: So I would have the best...

MARTIN: Mom homework.

ZAMORA: Yeah, mom homework because she really wanted me to be the best student. And she would hug me. We would sleep on the same bed. And as a little kid, that's what I missed most for four years, just her literal body next to mine and her warmth that night.

MATTHEW DIAMOND: Hello. Good morning, UP FIRST Sunday. My name is Matthew Diamond (ph). I currently live in Philadelphia. And I am a proud Uyghur American. I was adopted at the age of 13 by my American parents and family. Now I'm at the age of 26. My wonderful parents, you know, showed me so much love and really taught me and showed me what unconditional love was when I was in the orphanage. The teachers and the workers there had asked me, did I want to be adopted? So in a sense, I did choose to be adopted. And I chose the family - my family. And my family, of course, chose me first.

We don't have a lot of Uyghurs populations around the world or even in the States. My birth parents, whenever I thought about them, kind of caused me, you know, pain and confusion. I do think about this. You know, what happened to my parents? Where my birth parents are. Are they OK in this world? Are they still alive? You know, that part of family, for me, is something I most likely will never know. And it's just something you have to be OK with. And it's - you know, I'm not OK with it, but it's kind of like that saying - you know, it's OK to not be OK. You just kind of have to settle with that. And I wish one day, I will be able to see them and be reunited with them.

MARTIN: I think it's fair to say that reunion brings resolution. And so much of what has ailed America over the last several years isn't easily resolved - lives changed forever by the pandemic, distrust in institutions and in each other, racism and fear - those last two so clearly present in the murder of George Floyd by police officers. I talked about this with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.

TRACY K SMITH: I think we were all grieving many things, but for me, I was grieving the misconception that I had been free in this country in the ways that I thought I was, misconception that the work of racial justice was something that had been settled to a large extent by the generations that preceded me.

MARTIN: She told me in our conversation that comfort can come not just from the relationships we have in the here and now but by conjuring the memories of those who came before.

SMITH: You know, going into this sort of weird zone of saying, I'm meditating. I'm talking to ancestors. That's not an everyday thing that people admit to. It consoled me. I understood I was not alone, that what was happening to me had happened to people I love and people I don't know but whom I descend from.

MARTIN: And Smith says it helped her see her writing as part of something bigger.

SMITH: That it's the continuation of generations and centuries of work toward genuine freedom, Liberation for not just Black people but all people.


BONO: This is a very unscientific theory I have, Rachel. It's a kind of folksy idea, really, that when someone you love leaves you, you know, there might be a kind of gift in - you know, in their passing, like a living will and testament for you or something.

MARTIN: For Bono, there were two gifts that came out of his dad's death - first, the ability to let go.


BONO: And I had to put a few things right with my father. So I had this moment where I apologized to him. And I went to a little chapel, and I apologized to my father for not being there for him, really.

MARTIN: And the other gift came in the form of higher octaves.


BONO: I was going to call the book "The Baritone Who Thinks He's A Tenor" because that's what my dad used to say. You are a baritone who thinks he's a tenor.

MARTIN: Bono said his dad meant this as kind of a dig, like he was always trying to punch above his weight unsuccessfully. But after his dad died, Bono noticed a shift in his voice.


BONO: And I think I might have become the tenor. My voice certainly changed, but that also had something to do with - and this is not a unique phenomenon. When a loved one is missing from your life, as, you know, a manifestation, as physical manifestation, their essence becomes kind of strong.

MARTIN: Bono is a good example of someone who expanded his definition of what a family can be. He met the three other members of U2 when they were all angsty teenagers in Dublin with big dreams of musical stardom. Over a shared lifetime, they have all become family. The same week that they formed U2, Bono asked out the girl who would become his wife.


MARTIN: What was the most consequential decision you've ever made?

BONO: When I asked Alison Stewart, as she was known then - I think asking her out was the most important thing. I would say that first surrender - I mean, I'm 15 or 16. What do I know of unconditional love? But I may not know what it is, but I know what it isn't. So when I find it, it connects me spiritually, as well as personally. And I wonder if, sometimes, we do have what we need around us that's there. I certainly felt and have continually felt that the people I need are right there.

MARTIN: Recognize the wisdom in the people around you. Find love in unexpected places. If the family you were born into doesn't lift you up, build one that does. That's my wish for you this Thanksgiving. Look for the light around you. Center yourself in it. And then give thanks.


MARTIN: This episode of UP FIRST Sunday was produced by Justine Yan and edited by Jenny Schmidt. We'll be back tomorrow.

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