What does a family look like? And what does it mean to return to the places we come from? Beyond being simply something we are born into, many people spend their entire lives constructing their own versions of what a family is, what it can look like, and what it means to be a part of. Here, a handful of artists provide their own remarkably disparate views on the subject.
Writer John Paul Brammer on the ever-expanding definition of family.
I WAS PUT in charge of the rolls, which I made from scratch. This was not something I would have ever done on a normal Thanksgiving. We always got the rolls from a bakery. It was something of a family tradition, and something of an inside joke, to buy absolutely everything from a store. “Pre-cooked, pre-sliced, always,” my mom had said at one such dinner, which then became our house words for holiday dinners. We’d say it to each other and laugh.
The rolls turned out well, golden brown with a shiny egg-wash finish. I split one and was pleased with the little air pockets. They weren’t exactly store-bought, but their lack of uniformity was part of their charm, I figured. What a relief. Pandemic Thanksgiving would not be a failure on my account. A text: “We’re getting set up here, come over whenever.”
To truly know a place, you have to leave it.
The creek behind my parents’ house in rural Oklahoma is a small example. When I was little, I thought of it as a mighty river teeming with life and death — tortoises meandering downstream, big enough to stand on. Bones of unknown giants, scattered half-buried in the sediment. My dad taught me how to hold a gun there, an activity I never returned to. I fell in the water one frigid Easter. My sister, cousins, and I had tried to build a bridge out of branches and failed.
Then I saw my first real river. Then I saw the ocean. I realized our creek was awfully small, even as far as creeks go. One absolutely could not, should not stand on the turtles. Home is an elastic thing. Our notion of it changes as we move through life. The more we move, the farther it stretches. It was the creek I thought of that morning as I pulled the rolls out of the oven in my apartment in Brooklyn. I was thinking how I’d never felt farther away from it.
“On my way,” I texted back.
I have a surplus of Steves in my life. My father’s name is Steve, for one, and since then I’ve collected more, two friends I made in New York. Steves seem to have this in common — they work a lot and spend a lot of time on their phone. Warmth comes slowly and reluctantly, but when it does, it’s a wonderful thing. At least that’s my experience. When the pandemic hit, it was my Steves that I ended up forming a closeness to, texting every day and checking in on each other.
It had been a pale and murderous autumn with spiking cases and overwhelmed hospitals. Meeting just two people for Thanksgiving felt taboo, but the thought of doing nothing depressed us. So we meted out the responsibilities, assigned the turkey and the napkins and the spiced wine, and decided we would make something, anything happen. It was the first time in my life I’d spend a holiday away from home, away from family.
“It’s huge,” I said, the first time I came home from living in New York for a while back in 2016. I was looking up at the sky, a great blue expanse outstretched like a colossal bird. My dad had picked me up and was driving me from the Oklahoma City airport to our house in Cache. “It’s because it’s so flat here,” he said, referring to Oklahoma.
One year in New York and I’d already gotten used to buildings being closer together, being taller, competing at all times for their chunk of horizon. I never realized I’d come from such a flat place with such a big blue sky. I had ventured out here and there. My parents took me to New York in the fourth grade. I spent most of that trip with my eyes down, certain an air conditioning unit was going to fall from one of the buildings and kill me.
The trip didn’t change how I saw Oklahoma much. Not even Paris, which I saw on a senior trip in high school, made that big of a difference. These brief outings folded easily enough back into the project of Oklahoma, into my understanding of “home,” just as a particularly vivid and outrageous dream might seize you for a moment then go away, releasing you back to the humdrum of waking familiarity.
But then I left, really left, and the leaving made everything different. It made the sky much bigger.
I took my mask off at the door. There was turkey and brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes and pies, wine mulling on the stove and delightful scents bounding around Stephen’s apartment in a brownstone in Brooklyn. I added the rolls to the spread, hugged Stephen, and then Steve. Hugs were serious business at the time. You hugged people like you were going to die tomorrow.
“Hi baby,” I said. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
The concept of “chosen family” had always floated around since I’d come out as gay. I appreciated the idea while never really thinking of it as applying to me. I thought of it more as a dire resource, something you had to engage in if you were outright rejected by the people who raised you. I didn’t think I had one, until I needed one. But that’s family. They’re usually right under your nose.
The resulting meal was probably better than any I’d had back home. My Steves can cook, and I can make my way around a kitchen if pressed. We ate, we drank, we watched a movie, and I felt lucky and warm, albeit with a nagging lack in my heart. I missed Oklahoma, missed my parents and my sister and my cousins, missed the store-bought dinner and ensuing jokes about it, missed landing at the airport and walking outside and looking up. I missed the big sky.
The creek you’ve known all your life looks different after you meet the ocean. But it’s still the creek you know, the creek you grew up with, the one that holds your dreams of turtles the size of dinner tables. It’s no less special. Family works that way too. You have the one you start with, and then you meet more, and they lend each other context, make you appreciate new things, things you couldn’t have noticed if you didn’t have both of them.
Family is where you are, what you need, what you travel and find, what you come home to. It’s what helps you get by, the people you fall into, and the people you pick. It’s not a static thing. It’s not something you either luck into or you don’t. It changes. You choose it.
When I finally landed in Oklahoma after so much time away, the first thing I did was step outside and look up. “Missed you.”
Header image: “Love” is one of the images that I love most from my bodies of work. It is me holding and kissing my son in one difficult moment, comforting him, and it actually talks about the intimate mother-child love, how sensual and physical it is. Photo by Elinor Carucci.
John Paul Brammer Writer
John Paul Brammer is a writer and illustrator from rural Oklahoma currently based in Brooklyn. He runs the advice column “¡Hola Papi!”, which is now also a memoir of the same name available wherever books are sold.
Elinor Carucci Photographer
Born in Jerusalem in 1971 to a family of Moroccan, Syrian, Bucharian, and Italian descent, Carucci’s work has been included in many solo and group exhibitions worldwide and her photographs are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Houston Museum of Fine Art, among others. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Details, New York Magazine, W, Aperture, and ARTnews. She has published numerous monographs. Carucci teaches at the School of Visual Arts and is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery.
Federico Clavarino Photographer
Federico Clavarino is a visual artist and educator. He studied at Scuola Holden in Turin, Blank Paper Escuela in Madrid, where he also taught, as well as the Royal College of Art in London. He has published seven books and his works have been exhibited at festivals, galleries, and museums all over Europe.
Rinko Kawauchi Photographer
Born in 1972 in Shiga, Japan, Rinko Kawauchi is a photographer who lives and works in Tokyo.
Flora Hanitijo Photographer
Originally from Macau, Hanitijo grew up in Montreal, Canada. After studying at Cooper Union, she spent a decade living and working between Paris, London, and New York. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.