12/16/2014 05:42 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

La Famiglia

Strawberry Mood Photography via Getty Images

The book our gay men's book group read and discussed this week is the story of an Italian family, una famiglia. It's called All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani, himself an American from an Italian family. A mother, father, and two grown children (and one deceased) are the book's main players, but their family, the Grassos, becomes the real protagonist of the novel.

Given how family importance gets heightened during the December holidays, Castellani's book was a good choice. And as always happens in that group, smart guys discussing a work produced insights that I hadn't thought of.

It being a family story, discussion of All This Talk of Love slid into tales that several men in the group related about their own families, tales that made the evening even richer. Some men in the group are from Italian families who sound not so different from the Grassos; but same nationality or not, families seem to stand in two-way mirrors that reflect the same picture.

In my experience, thoughts about family bring back memories good and bad, often vying with one another. I strive to remember the good things about my family, mostly now deceased. But it's easy for those times to get buried under moments and relationships that left one wanting, caused by others and, when I'm honest, by myself as well.

What I've found curious about families is that the need does not vanish when an actual family does. Gradually we reach out and create new families -- a lover or partner or a distant cousin who grows closer, maybe a teacher or student, maybe a good friend who takes over as welcome sister or brother. With my immediate family all gone, I turn to friends, to be sure, and also to nieces, nephews, and even their children. I'm doing my best to establish a cadre of younger folk who will come around and provide help when needed. Don't go too far away, please, I've hollered. You may get a plea to attend an aging uncle!

Everyone lately has been touched by stories of families who were torn apart by shootings or strangulations, deeply sad tales. The events were examined by a jury of citizens, and the findings they returned have been so controversial, often acquitting a police officer, that protests erupted locally and across the land. Presumably the panel believed in justice as much as those who later protested their findings, but it's easy to see otherwise. Regardless, men died under circumstances not clear. And those men, part of a family, maybe a lover or husband or brother, certainly a son, are gone.

The Hebrew Bible is filled with family stories of jealousy and betrayal as well as those of love. It seems that the sages who wrote the stories are alerting us to the frequency of unhappy, even murderous family relationships. Accept that we humans were not made perfect, those stories say, and know that to make your family whole needs care and nourishment, and a large measure of forgiveness.

This month, with the wonderful days of Chanukah and Christmas, I think I'll review the love that was portrayed by Castellani in the Grasso family, and see if I can't find a little more good to remember in my own.

Stanley Ely includes many family stories in his new memoir, Life Up Close, in paperback and ebook.