Like so many others I grew up with many Western ideals and norms being shoved down my throat from all of my favorite movies, tv shows and books. Often it starkly contrasted my own lived experiences. One in particular was the living arrangements in the home. The “normal” houses I saw on tv were definitely not normal for myself and everyone I knew. It was rarely ever just “mom, dad and the kids” in our house – instead, it often fluctuated with us sharing our home with other family members (or them sharing their home with us).
Some of my best childhood memories are from when I lived with my cousins, and instead of being just cousins, they are more like my sisters. When my mom’s house was being built, I remember living at my kokom’s house. My kokom always opened her home to everyone and was someone who exemplified values that are found in our culture such as wahkohtowin, kindness, sharing/generosity. All my my memories of her house are so full of love (and fighting for a spot to sit, with aunties soon kicking you out of the house).
Growing up I never asked or understood why the people I knew and loved had so many people in the houses. Despite tv, it was our normal, but I knew that when I grew up I would want what I saw on tv, and what I thought “other people” lived like. So when I finally graduated high school and moved to Edmonton for college/University my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I were eager to live by ourselves in our own space. It’s something I had looked forward to for a long time. What I was not expecting was the loneliness, the many calls and video calls home, and the countless money spent on gas on weekends to drive home and be with our families. Eventually during our time in Edmonton my cousin ended up moving in with us and being our roommate. Another year we lived in the basement of friends. A different year my wonderful friend let me stay with her for two months while we figured out a separate living situation. Then, the following year we decided to rent with my boyfriends cousin, his sister in law, wife, and kid.
It is complicated. There are so many variables when it comes to living with people, and creating community in the home. Much of it is financial, but there is also a cultural aspect to it, linked to relational ties to loved ones. When we make these choices to live with our loved ones I am constantly reminded of our ancestors, and the community they got to experience as they lived in close quarters with each other. It is certainly a different world than Western ideal of nuclear family. I often think of my own kokom who passed last year, and how much lonelier her last decade would have been had she not had her doors so wide open. How I cannot imagine sending your kids out into the world, becoming separate units, and the idea that once a kid turns 18 they are on their own. I realize that this is not our way. I could cry when I imagine being an empty nester, that is not my dream or my ideal. When I think of nuclear family and one family households now, I start to think of the old people who get sent to nursing homes, with families who do not want them and I could cry. There is strength in the household, in family, in community, and it is up to us to foster that.
Currently, we live in a communal household, and although I can go on about the challenges, at this point I want to point to the gratitude I feel for it. We live with my sister and nephew and although it’s for a few seasons, I am so grateful for the extra hand with my daughter, and the aunty-hood that she gets to experience. In Cree, aunty is “nikowis” which is very close to “nikowiy” for mother, because an aunt is like another mother. As I explore my own identity and reassess Western ideals and norms, I come to know not only myself more, but my ancestors.
– claudia bull