All those happy smiling faces, looking back at me. I am not part of them.

I’m looking at a picture of a family reunion – on my mother’s side of the family – that took place last summer. Aunts, uncles, cousins … my cousins’ children who are already married with children of their own! Most of these happy smiling faces I do not even recognize.

Looking at the photo leaves me with an unexpected aching, deep in my bones.

I have not always been estranged from my extended family. There were times growing up when we would all get together for the 4th of July, and we would run around with sparklers in our hands and eat watermelon until we thought we would sprout seed. And then there were Thanksgivings when we would all get together and play touch football – my umpteen cousins and I – and then we would stuff ourselves with turkey until we gobbled.

There was one or two Christmases spent with relatives that I can remember, but Christmas was mostly a “spend time at home” affair. No one likes packing up presents for a family of six and converging upon grandma’s house – with many many other families of six!

Things are different now. Much different. Times have changed; people have grown up, moved away, grown apart. Most families (including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) don’t continue to live within an hour or two of one another like we used to.

But still my family tries. They try to get together every now and again for these big, happy, smiling faced reunions. Just like the one last summer.

I did not attend. Reason number one: I had just returned from Colorado where my son had just gotten married. And reason number two: even if I had gone, I probably would have had the same achy feeling anyway.

For I feel like I have very little in common with my extended family any more. When you are young, you do and say and think and believe as you are told. My cousins and I were all alike growing up, as were our parents, as were our grandparents. And a lot of people continue to think and believe the same way when they become adults and carry on the tradition by teaching those same thoughts and beliefs to their own children.

But I was different. I continue to be different. I’m one of those people that question everything, that wants to learn as much as I can about everything I can. From both sides of the proverbial fence. And then I make up my own decision which side of that fence I want to be on.

And wouldn’t you know it – I ended up on the other side of the fence, away from my family.

I grew up in a very strict, extremely conservative, Christian, Republican family. But I live much more outside the box, much more outside those labels. But if I had to be labeled, just call me an Omnist Democrat (even though I don’t truly fit into that box either.)

My point is, time spent with my family can leave me feeling a bit unhinged. Deflated. Depressed. Even attacked – even though that might not have been their intention. I leave feeling like “the other.” Just put a scarlet O upon my chest.

This causes a major dilemma for me. Because on the one hand – just like everybody else – I want to be loved and accepted. I want to BELONG. I want to be a happy, smiling part of my family. But it’s hard to be happy and smiling when the so-called sinners and politically inept they’re speaking of is YOU.

So I keep my distance. My mental health and ulcers have basically deemed it so. I have never fully figured out how people can just let stuff roll off their backs – to not let stuff bother them. I wish I could be like that.

At least I still have my husband and my two grown children and my daughter-in-law as part of my new pack.

But still I ache. I ache for times gone by. I ache for the simpler times of sparklers and watermelon, for football games and turkey. When the only things I knew were what my parents told me I had to believe.

All those happy smiling faces, looking back at me. I am not part of them.

I am not that little girl anymore. I am my own happy, smiling woman – smiling back at my own family.