Paying tribute to the real American family

Family is an ideal that has fallen on hard times in recent decades, at least when it is portrayed in statistical terms. Hand-wringers abound, lamenting its obvious challenges: high rates of divorce, cohabitation, and single parenthood.

But statistics are faceless and cold. They tell one story about changing patterns, but they mask other heartening stories - the ones involving real people leading daily lives.

In the weeks since Sept. 11, the real-life family has been acquiring a more positive image. Americans everywhere are acknowledging the family's strengths, overlooking its imperfections, and giving thanks for the domestic ties that bind.

Perhaps nowhere is that strength more evident than in remembrances of those who lost their lives that day. At funerals and memorial services, in obituaries, eulogies, and news stories, victims are being honored for all the ways in which they loved and cared for those closest to them.

Some of the most poignant tributes have appeared in a New York Times feature called "Portraits of Grief." Every day the paper devotes a page to thumbnail profiles of those who were killed at the World Trade Center. The 150-to 200-word sketches, usually accompanied by a tiny photo, offer vignettes that are by turns touching and haunting.

In interviewing victims' relatives and friends, reporters seek to capture the essence of how individuals lived: the qualities others remember them by, the activities that gave them happiness and satisfaction, the people they doted on.

The profiles bear silent testimony to the power of the American family, circa 2001. These men and women come from every economic group. They range from bond traders, accountants, and secretaries to firemen, electricians, and janitors. But whatever their titles at work, it was their titles at home - husband, father, wife, mother, son, daughter, grandparent - that often reigned supreme in their hearts.

Their families did not always conform to a 1950s ideal. Some people were divorced and remarried. Others were struggling to raise children alone. But whatever the challenges, descriptions such as "warmly generous," "unselfish," "thoughtful," and "devoted" are sprinkled through the stories.

An obituary may be the varnished public version of an imperfect private life. But to read these moving accounts day after day is to be struck by how central a role family, in all its varied forms, played in these victims' lives.

There is Carl DiFranco, a 27-year-old accountant who would come home from work and help his mother around the house. Similarly, Giovanna Porras, in her early 20s, was "as comfortable escorting her mother around town as she was nightclub-hopping with her friends."

A divorced carpenter, Maurice Patrick Kelly, was rearing his two sons, ages 7 and 10, alone. Melissa White, an office worker, "was like the caretaker to the whole family," her brother noted. An audio engineer, William Steckman, preferred the night shift so he could spend days with his five children. Leobardo Lopez Pascual, a restaurant worker, wired money weekly to his wife and four children in Mexico.

On and on the heartening accounts go. What a contrast to books and headlines painting a gloomy picture of the family.

The Times intends to include every person whose life ended in the New York tragedy. Editors estimate that the project will take between 10 months and a year to complete.

For each of the 300-plus victims already profiled, and for the 5,000 or so whose stories have yet to appear, the word "family" meant different things. It also brought different challenges and rewards.

When "Portraits of Grief" is finished, its sketches could create a powerful portrait of the American family. These poignant glimpses serve as a reminder that, although statistics may not lie, they don't always tell the whole truth.

The vignettes also send another important message: Don't sell the American family short. It just might be in far better shape than experts - and statistics - give it credit for.

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