My husband’s grandparents have a beautiful old book that records their family tree. Every wedding and birth of a child adds a new line to the book that goes back generations and generations. Much of his extended family still lives in the charming small town where his parents grew up and Brian’s parents still live in the house where he was born.
When I think about my family, there are no visions of a hometown or childhood home or family reunions. I actually have a hard time even picturing the faces of my “family.” My family is complicated, convoluted, non-traditional.
If I tried to draw out a family tree, it probably wouldn’t even resemble a tree. Back to both sets of my grandparents, there are half siblings and step-siblings, divorce and remarriage. My own parents separated when I was only a toddler. There were years that my mom was a single mom. There were years that my mom’s partner’s son lived with us. There were years we lived with my dad and his girlfriend and her kids. There were years we lived with my mom and friends who took us in because we had no place to go.
There were years that my dad was a single dad. There were years that we lived with my dad and his new wife and her son. There were years that my sister and I lived with my dad and his new family without my brother, who left home at just 15. There were years that my sister went to live with my mom and her partner and son while I lived with my dad, stepmom and stepbrother while we rarely heard from my brother.
When I add in all of the cousins and step-cousins and step-grandparents and step-aunts and step-uncles…things get really confusing. Then, when both my mom and dad’s relationships ended in tumultuous fashion a few years ago, things were further complicated.
We went to a wedding yesterday. It was so beautiful…a young couple so in love, with every hope for the future. I’m a mingle-er and with a baby strapped to my chest as an easy conversation starter, people like to chat with me. “So how do you know the couple?” they’d say. I’d answer with, “The groom is my little brother,” and several times I had to do a little explaining.
Caught off guard the first couple times, I said something about us being a blended family, but that our parents divorced. Quite a few times I had to answer questions about my brother and sister who were not at the wedding and once I had to connect the dots for a bewildered and unrelenting person about who I was: “The mother-of-the-groom’s former husband’s daughter.” Ugh.
Toward the end of the night, I caught up with my little brother, and I remembered that yes, we don’t share blood. He’s not even technically my step-brother anymore. But to me, he’ll always be my little brother. I met him just before he turned 5. Having me as a sister is a part of every memory that he has on Earth. I have more than 20 years of memories with him.
One of the blessings of being an adult is that I get to make my own rules when it comes to family. It’s such a strange thing to figure out how to reconcile hurts and wrongs experienced as a child (even as a grown-up child) with the rational brain of an adult looking to move forward in life. Where as a child I was powerless, now as an adult, I am in full control.
I have my own family to think of now- three kids of my own who will grow up with a mom and a dad and lots of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents on both sides of the family. Everyone who we consider family is placed in that category as a conscious choice, not just because we share blood.
Yes, my little brother is my dad’s ex-wife’s son. My cousin is my grandmother’s friend’s daughter. My aunt is my dad’s half-sister. My kids love their J-Ma who is my dad’s third wife. My sister has a step-brother that I would call an old friend. My grandma has married and divorced the same man more times than I know.
My book of family might look a little different than most, but at the end of the day, I know it’s a good book because I have written every page of it. It’s filled with love, acceptance, gratitude, loyalty, lots of laughter, the perseverance to push through hard times and exactly the people I want in my life. But mostly, it’s a good book because it’s mine.