Monday, October 13, 2008


I've been pondering the meaning of the word "real" the last few days, after a conversation with my cousin Sandi. What does a "real" family mean?

I'm adopted, and I've been confronted with the "real" family question since I was a child. I have always known I was adopted. It's just part of who I am. My parents always told me I was "chosen". I had a wonderful image when I was younger that my parents went to a supermarket to get me. Instead of shopping carts, they used baby buggies. Instead of freezer compartments, there were bassinets and they rolled their buggy down the aisle until they found me, put me in the baby buggy and wheeled through the checkout. I didn't really know what happened at checkout, but I was their "choice" and I went home with them.

I've lost count of the number of times that people over the years have asked if I wanted to find my "real" parents. My "real" parents were at home, or sitting by my side when I was sick, or sitting up in a gas station at 9pm reading a book because I was 15 and my mom didn't want me sitting in a gas station by myself at that hour. My "real" father would sit up waiting for me, even after I had moved out and was home for the weekend. His light was a beacon in the night over the driveway...and his room was always dark when I reached the top of the stairs. He would fake snore, and I would pop my head in his room and call good night to him. There would be silence, and then he would respond, embarrassed that he'd been caught waiting for his 2o something daughter. My real father would phone me in Toronto when I was sick "because my mother was worried about me", oblivious to the fact that I had talked to my mom earlier in the day. My real father is lying in the graveyard in St. Eugene, Ontario. My "real" parents are my mom and dad. I may not have their DNA, but I knew who my parents are.

I have never been curious about my biological parents, although I'd like to know the health information that is swimming in my gene pool. I was adopted at a time when the records in Quebec were sealed, and although there have been a number of legal challenges, to date they remain sealed. I know when and where I was born, and that's it. I have nothing to search with, and no real inclination to do so. It makes for a bunch of medical tests when I go to a new doctor because I have no medical history, but other than that, I know who I am.

I have a massive extended family, and I am closer to my mother's side of the family, the Harveys. It's not that there's anything wrong with the Cheeseman side, far from it. My cousin Pat is my daughter's Godmother, and one of my closest friends. I didn't really get to know the Cheeseman family until I was in my teens and we moved to Kitchener. I grew UP with the Harvey clan, especially the Allison family. The four Allison boys are the closest I have to brothers, and our families were inseparable when I was a child. They lost their mother and father a few years apart, and my mom and dad acted as surrogate parents. It was a conversation that I had with Glenn and Sandi Allison (and Sandi is like a sister because she lived with the Allisons when she was a teenager, and I thought she was the coolest ever with her go-go boots...I still think she's pretty cool, and now I could her as a close friend) at my kitchen table that has me mulling and a bit hurt.

I'm an adopted child and an adoptive parent. My family is my family, my cousins are my cousins, my aunts and uncles are my aunts and uncles, and my child is unequivocally, absolutely my daughter. I've never cared a fig about DNA. Apparently, not everyone in my family shares that belief, because one of my other cousins had made a comment that someone was not a "real" cousin because they were adopted.

I don't know the source of the opinion, although I have my suspicions. I have to admit the comment caught me off guard, because if adopted members are not "real" family...then neither am I nor is my daughter. I'm hurt and puzzled by that. It's beyond my realm of comprehension.

So what makes a "real" family? Is it only DNA? I am certainly closer to some members of my family than others, but I don't think DNA has anything to do with that. I know lots of blood siblings who don't speak, or seem to have come from different universes. I know siblings who are close in age and as different as chalk and cheese.

To me, "real" family is made from love, shared tradition and shared experiences. I have 21 cousins on my mom's side of the family, and when my aunt and uncle celebrated their 50th anniversary, every single one of us was together for the first time since we were kids. We all gathered at the Lefaivre farm, where many family gatherings, and any number of massive cousin hide and go seek games took place in the old barn. My husband listened with fascination at some of the stories of my childhood...and DNA played no part in the childhood raids to get fresh peas from the garden, or the hours of cross country skiing we did out the back fields. DNA played no part in the family chocolate chip cookies, or Auntie Beryl's oatmeal cookies...or the family ghosts. Our shared experience made the family, not the blood in our veins.

Nature or nurture; any adoptive parent is familiar with the debate. What shapes a child? Is it environment or DNA. Is an adopted child not a "real" member of the family? I don't think so, and it makes me sad that others disagree. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree; family does that.

So what do you think? What makes a "real" family member?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Confessions of a Political Junkie

My name is Lisa...and I am a political junkie. Actually, I'm a third generation political junkie...and with imminent elections in Canada and the United States, I am a happy political junkie.

From the time I was a child, I followed politics. I am an only child, and if I wanted to have anything to say over dinner, I had to. Our family talked politics, local, provincial, federal and international, over dinner. I once won a trivia contest at Wilder Penfield Elementary School in Dollard des Ormeaux because I was the only one in the school who could successfully identify a picture of Mayor Jean Drapeau... (and I was probably only in grade 3 at the time...) once a geek...

My parents followed politics closely, although they were not active in a party. My father was a Liberal. His family was Liberal. His family continues to vote Liberal. It didn't matter who was the leader of the party, or who the local representative was. The Cheeseman family vote Liberal.

My mother tended to vote Liberal as well, but was more concerned with who was leading the party and who the local candidate was. Her father always advised her to "vote for the man rather than the party" and she tended to follow that. My mother is passionate about caring for the poor, the homeless and the hungry. No matter how little she had, she always found some money to give to others. As she's aged, she's become far more concerned with which party will best take care of the least in society. She is on a fixed income and has little, and is still passionate about people who have even less than she has. It's a lesson I learned at home and one that I practice and continue to teach my daughter.

I'm an enigma. As my family will gleefully remind me from time to time, I was a card carrying member of the Conservative party for years, and there are pictures of me, dressed head to toe in Larry Grossman garb at a leadership convention circa 1984. One of my most treasured possessions is an autograph from Joe Clark. I joined the Conservative party because of Joe Clark-I was always to the left of centre in my thinking and Joe appealed to my teenaged idealism. I was in tears the night his government was defeated, and wrote a very impassioned, full of idealism letter of support to him. I was 17 and really upset that I couldn't vote. I still have the letter I received in response. My grade 12 history teacher, Tom DelaFreniere, fanned the spark of interest into a flame by engaging in a spirited debate about issues during the election that followed and demanded that we debate intelligently, and not just "I like the party". He expected us to defend our position...and was not smug the morning after the election returned the Liberals to power. I went on to complete 2 degrees in Political Science. My specialty and passion has always been Canadian politics, and since I grew up in Quebec during the 1970s, I spent a great deal of time trying to understand why the Quebecois feel as they do. I don't think I completely understand, but at least I've made the effort to see another point of view.

I actively worked in both Larry Grossman leadership campaigns, canvassed for candidates until my feet fell off...and then received a hard lesson in political party reality. It was 1985, and I had passed up an opportunity to be a delegate from the Kitchener riding to the second Ontario Conservative leadership convention (which Grossman eventually won) because I had been promised a delegate position because I'd worked on staff for the Grossman campaign (sometimes going 24 hours at the headquarters-Larry Grossman's father was an insomniac, and it was not uncommon for him to arrive in the wee small hours of the morning with food for those of us silly enough to be there over night. Computer technology was in its infancy...we did a lot of things manually...and I became very good at running the autopen and signing Larry's name to the letters...) On the night of the speeches, I was eager to hear them in person, and my section head kept stalling, saying we'd all go together...I finally got fed up and headed down there alone, and walked up to delegate registration, only to find out that they had nothing for me...I had moved to Toronto by then, and I was three-quarters of the way out the door, heading for home when I was stopped by one of the senior team, who explained that there had been some "confusion" about me...and there was no delegate for me, but they hadn't wanted to "upset" me by telling me ahead of time. Yeah, cause it was much less upsetting to be turned away at the door...I cut my ties with the party not long after...literally. I cut up my membership cards, I cut up my PC Canada Fund card...and I haven't voted Conservative since.

I share my mother's passion about the poor, the homeless, the marginalized, the hungry and the less fortunate. I have added a concern for the environment, and our family does our best to mitigate our impact on the environment. I believe that we all have a personal responsibility to take care of each other, and that the people we elect as representatives and lawmakers have a higher responsibility. I will never be an economist. People matter to me far more than the bottom line or the boardroom profit margins. I was always the one who asked how a policy decision would impact the employees...I don't do "mean". I understand that tough decisions need to be made in business, and in politics, but I have never been able to make those decisions without agonizing about the impact on the people behind the decision. I will vote for the party that I think can balance the concerns of the bottom line with the concerns for the people impacted BY the bottom line.

I confess that I have been far more interested in the politics south of the border than our current federal election. With the exception of the Green Party, the differences among the mainstream parties are not that significant. In the United States, however, the McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden tickets are worlds apart. The president of the United States has a worldwide impact and with the current economic crisis needs a firm and prudent steward. How I feel about US politics is a blog in itself...but suffice to say that McCain, and especially Palin scare me witless. It's unfortunate that Ms. Palin will become the anti-poster child for women in politics. There are so many better choices for VP than the gun-toting, g-dropping Governor from Alaska. If I were voting...I'd vote Democrat.

I will be glued to the television on Tuesday night...and I will be talking back and forth with my mother all evening. We will similarly be glued to the television on November 4. After 10 years of marriage, my husband has come over ot the dark side (we have cookies...) and has joined the political junkie side of the family. If he's stuck watching the debates and the returns, he might as well join in the conversation as well! Meet the Press is our Sunday morning with coffee ritual, although we miss Tim Russert. I'd love to see what he would do with Sarah Palin...

It's an important time in our history and that of our neighbours to the south. I will always exercise my right to vote because I don't believe you have a right to bitch if you haven't been part of the process! Whatever your opinion, whatever your inclination...exercise your right to a part of the decision-making.