Family opens their hearts and their lives

They say you can’t choose your family – that you can’t ‘fit in’ with a crowd that isn’t your own.

But my family did choose me, and they’ve come to accept me in their own way, all 125-plus of them.

My mom comes from a huge family, and every time I’m around them, they jokingly say, “There’s the celebrity!” There’s more to my mom’s side of the family than I first realized, though.

We recently had our annual family reunion. I saw a sea of familiar faces as we pulled up to our designated pavilion at DelGrosso’s Amusement Park.

The first to greet me were cousins Bob and Tara. They came ready with their usual warm hug and smile as their two sons, Joe and Sam, came racing around the corner. I inched my way down the long strip of pavement near our pavilion when Mary, one of mom’s many aunts, stopped me and said, “I loved your article this week!”

Then I spotted Elaine, the fun-loving cousin who never fails to make me laugh, sitting at a picnic table. She shot a sneaky smile my way before mingling with everyone who had arrived. My uncle Rich and his crew rolled in from Boalsburg a few minutes later, and my mom gave my three first cousins big hugs and kisses.

As the day went on, I saw more familiar faces I hadn’t seen for the better part of a year. They asked me how I was and in my usual conversation with cousin Janice and her husband, Chuck, I explained what my typical work day is like. It was in that moment that I realized it didn’t bother them that I’m in a wheelchair.

They just kept talking to me like nothing was wrong. It was the best feeling in the world.

It’s rewarding to know that more of my family are comfortable interacting with me. It’s been a very gradual process for some, and I completely respect that. I’m just grateful that all my relatives are looking passed the shadow of my chair, giving me a chance to prove I’m worthy of being called family. They love to joke around and have fun, but for them to put forth this effort is more than I could ever ask because I know it hasn’t been easy for everyone.

My uncle Vince, who passed away last year, took a while to come around. It was a big step for him, but he did it. I am proud of that because he did it out of love. We dedicated this year’s reunion to him. So, staying in that same mindset, I dedicate my column this month to him.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is that family is family no matter where they come from or what they look like. It might feel strange at first, but it’s all connected at the end of the day.

On that note, I’m probably going to get in trouble for missing a few people in this. Just know that I’ve done my best to keep a long-standing promise to fit all my relatives’ names in one column. Thank you for opening your hearts to me. I’ll work on adding those extra names to my column.

Erin Kelly, 31, was born with cerebral palsy in Korea, and lives in Altoona. In addition to this column, she also writes for online publications The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and Real Talk Magazine. Email her at WriterWheels28@gmail.com.