What is a family? I like to picture it as a mobile hanging over a baby’s crib: A funny collection of characters in various shapes and sizes, colors and combinations _ a herd of sheep, a clan of bears, a pod of whales or a pack of humans with little in common except they belong to each other.
Each character has its own identity, its own independence. But it remains, like it or not, connected to all the rest.
The connection in a crib mobile might be a simple plastic thread. But in a human family, it’s a combination of ties: Blood, marriage, history, memories and, most of all, love.
In the South, in the ‘50s, when my parents split up, divorce was something that mostly only happened in Hollywood. My teacher in second grade looked at the report card I’d just returned and asked me in front of the class, “Who signed this?”
“My mother,” I said.
Frowning, she asked, “Why is her name different from yours?”
“Because,” I said, “my parents are divorced and my mother is married to my stepdad.”
I wish you could’ve heard the hush that fell over that room.
Years later, my first child came home from kindergarten to ask, “Mom, do I have a stepdad?”
“No,” I said, laughing, “why would you think that?”
“Because,” he said, “all the other kids have stepdads.”
In one generation, “steps” went from rare to routine.
Eleven years ago, when I remarried, my new husband and I became “one.” But at the same time, we also became “many”_ a big, blended family that continues to grow and change. He was divorced. I was a widow. We shared five grown children, my three, his two. Three of the five have married and given us six grandchildren, ages 6 years to 6 weeks.
We live hundreds of miles apart, but try our best to get together whenever we can. Last week my husband and I drove from our home in Nevada, to California, to visit some of our family. We stopped first in Monterey to see my daughter, her husband and 5-year-old Henry. After dinner, Henry and I played with plastic army men and talked about our dreams.
“What will you be when you grow up?” I said, putting my army men in a tent for a nap.
“A paleontologist,” Henry said.
“A paleontologist, Nana. It’s somebody who digs up bones.”
“You mean, like a dog?”
Henry found that hilarious. He often seems to find me that way.
“No, Nana!” he said. “It’s a scientist who digs up bones and puts them together to see what dinosaurs looked like.”
“Oh,” I said. “You’ll be good at that. Know what I wanted to be when I was your age?”
“Did you want to be my nana?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Good,” he said, grinning, “cause you’re good at it.”
We spent the next evening catching up with three family favorites: my husband’s sister, her husband and their dog Bubba. Then we drove up the coast through glorious green hills to Sonoma, to have dinner with my husband’s older son, daughter-in-law and their two little ones; his younger son and his girlfriend; and my husband’s ex-wife, the mother of his boys.
Soon, we hope to spend some time with my youngest, his wife, and their three babes, and with my oldest, who lives in L.A. We have a great-nephew we haven’t met yet. And we’re long overdue to visit my family in the South. Plus, there’s a long list of friends who feel like family that we’ve been missing far too long.
So what is a family?
It is a blended, extended bunch of steps and grands and greats and such (even a few not-so-greats) who are connected by blood or marriage or friendship, but will always and forever be bound together by love.
A family isn’t perfect. But it’s really good at being a family.