My family moved to North Carolina when I was 10, leaving behind a wealth of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We soon learned that moving away from the central hub of your family often causes thriving relationships to decline.
On the other hand, you may be someone who never had a close relationship with your extended family to begin with. Regardless of the circumstance, I know from experience that relationships with your extended family are possible. No matter how far away they live, family is still family. With these tips, you can learn that for yourself, too.
There was a time when phone calls comprised the entirety of my relationship with my aunt. I had never met her. Yet, she contacted me during my second year of college with a sincere desire to know me. In the months that followed, I looked forward to our semi-weekly phone conversations. The trust we cultivated soon resulted in a visit, which I still remember fondly.
Moral of the story? Even if you have to start your relationship over the phone, it's still possible to convey genuine love. Also, short frequent phone calls build a relationship more than marathon calls once a year. Frequency of contact helps both of you to feel involved in each other's lives in a real and meaningful way. This year, I have a goal to call my sisters more often. Make it your goal, too.
Focus on them as you learn (and re-learn) commonalities
"How's life?" is such a generic question. It doesn't really express interest or concern. Learn more and ask specific questions in the future. If you know that your favorite aunt is a nurse who loves puppies, you can ask "Any funny patient stories for me?" or "How's potty training going for Spot?"
Go a step further and find out what you and your family member can get excited about together. I always make sure to ask my mom how work is going. However, it's not until I start asking her for advice on marriage or spirituality that she gets excited. Her enthusiasm sparks my own. Before we know it, 10 minutes of small talk has turned into an hour of real conversation.
Make it a regular practice to get together. This becomes much easier and more natural after frequent phone calls and re-learning about each other. If it helps, bring other members of your family with you in order to smooth over any awkwardness.
For example, I once visited my grandma by myself for a summer. I ended up feeling very shy and awkward. This made it an uncomfortable experience, overall. However, my sisters, mom and I all gathered at my grandma's house for a long weekend last May. Celebrating Mother's Day has never been so fun or meaningful. Plus, I left feeling closer to each of them. An awkward social situation had disappeared with the presence of my loud and loving sisters.
Discover your family identity and take pride in it
It wasn't until after our California trip that I realized just how strong, independent, and caring the women in my family are. That was an identity of which I was proud to be a part.
You, too, can draw from the strengths that your family background gives you. With a little research, you might discover that your ancestors come from your favorite European country. Maybe your love of fishing comes from your great-uncle Joseph, who learned it from his sailor grandfather. Whatever the case, much of who you are comes from your family, whether you realize it or not. Discover the connections today.
Keep childhood traditions alive and make new ones together
My family's Mother's Day visits have become an important tradition, but your traditions don't have to be as expensive as plane fare. Does your niece make the best potato salad ever? Ask for the recipe and make it a part of your normal summer menu. Did your grandpa always help your family choose and chop down a Christmas tree? Next year, take your family to a Christmas tree farm in his honor. Better yet, bring Grandpa with you or take lots of pictures and send them to him. These simple actions give you an opportunity to develop continuity between family members as well as offer sincere well-wishes to far-off loved ones.
Honestly, there are probably many family members with whom you feel you should keep in touch. Parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents - the list goes on. Unless you live close to a large portion of them, you probably aren't going to find time in your life to contact all of them on a regular basis, not to mention having a meaningful conversation. That's OK.
Just remember one thing. As much as having an extended family grounds you and helps you have an identity, it does the same for each of them. You are part of something very meaningful for them even if they don't realize it. So, if you can't shake the feeling that you should call Uncle Michael or write a note to Grandma Sandy, just do it. There can be a lot of love in that small gesture. Love is what family is all about.