I have never been good with change. My tendency is not to embrace it so much as to cling stubbornly and resist it with all my might. Maybe it’s in the stars; I’m a Taurus and I don’t show that bull-headedness often. Or maybe it’s because my family changed so much when I was small: my parents separated when I was four, my beloved grandmother had a stroke when I was five, at six my mom remarried, at seven my grandmother died, and at nine I got a stepmother. We moved when I was four and then again when I was seven. At three and eight, I was blessed with little sisters, and at 10 the novelty of a baby brother.
I was an abnormally cheerful teen, but I suspect it’s because I got all of my rebellion out of the way as a little girl. I think back to my childhood and remember a lot of furious tears in my room, the “you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do-you’re-not-my-real-dad” thoughts, the “I-hate-you-you’re-not-like-my-mom-at-all” power struggles, the fighting, and all of the scary adjustments that each change necessitated. By the time I was a teenager, my families had settled into themselves. They were each complete, constant. Holidays were sometimes a scheduling nightmare, but for the most part it seemed that it had always been that way, and it was okay. Better than okay, really.
It was last year that changes crept in, some sudden and some not. I got engaged. My dad separated from his wife. My sporty little stranger of a brother stopped returning my calls. My grandfather’s Alzheimer’s got worse, and my grandmother started to have trouble breathing. One of my little sisters graduated from college; the other started to drive. Even from two states away, all this change was scary. Maybe especially from two states away.
This summer I started to learn, in a grown-up way, what family means.
Lesson One: The Past
I sit at the gingham-covered table at my grandparents’ cabin, reverently turning the yellowing photos in an album. My grandparents’ wedding pictures are here. I’ve heard their story often, how they met in a college music class after my grandfather returned from WWII. I don’t get tired of it. They have been married for more than fifty years and raised four sons together. Despite the frustration and heartbreak of Alzheimer’s, it’s obvious still how much they love one another.
“I saw her legs, and that was it! She had great legs,” my grandfather reminisces fondly.
“Jack!” my grandmother rebukes him, horrified, and I giggle.
It smells like trees here. I breathe it in, relishing the un-city sounds of hummingbirds and dogs. This is the place I love above all other places. My grandfather and Uncle (but not really our uncle) Milt built it themselves back in the 50s with wood and mortar and sweat. It holds the happiest memories of my childhood. I remember playing with G.I. Joes on the cool wooden bedroom floor and lying in a shrieking huddle with my sister as our uncles pushed the hammock up toward the blue, blue sky. I remember being thrown into the icy-cold lake by my grandfather. I remember hikes and stories and picnics and Popsicles without number. On hot summer days in D.C., I miss this most of all.
My uncle’s Dalmatian barks as a branch cracks and a car rolls up the driveway. It interrupts my grandmother’s recitation of family history.
It is still odd to see my father approach alone. It’s been nearly a year now since he and my stepmother separated. When I hear his car coming up the drive, I still half-expect to see the family golden retriever and my Gap-clad brother, lacrosse stick in hand, bound out of the staid SUV. Instead it’s just my dad in his new electric-blue P.T. Cruiser, sans family.
He talks more now. It’s as though in leaving, he’s found himself again. He seems more like the light-hearted father I remember from my childhood — making jokes with my uncles, watching football, telling stories, hanging out with his buddies. It’s funny; I hadn’t consciously known he was unhappy or realized that he’d been different, until suddenly … he wasn’t anymore.
This divorce has not been easy on anyone involved. There have been ugly phone calls, malicious e-mails, lies. There are silences that tell of breaches in our family that weren’t here before. I don’t always know the right thing to do. I don’t know if my brother will come to my wedding.
But my dad smiles more now. That’s good enough for me.
Lesson Two: The Present
On a pretty summer twilight, I sit surrounded by friends. I look around the white-clad table and marvel at how much I like all of the people I see. This hasn’t always been so. There have been asshole boyfriends, crazy ex-friends, awkward couplings, drama galore. I like to think all of that has been winnowed out along the way.
Many of us have been friends for seven-going-on-eight years now. We have so many shared memories and jokes. Sometimes we squabble and gossip, but thus far we’ve always made up because we really do like each other. Who are these people if not another of my families?
It’s one of several weddings I will attend this summer. The bride and groom actually glow as they make their rounds, ever-gracious. Earlier we stood around, jewel-colored martinis in hand, nibbling on mozzarella balls and sipping thick, velvety orange soup, snapping pictures. Later all the girls (and Rob) will dance to old-school Madonna.
This is the kind of wedding where everyone is filled with genuine goodwill toward the couple, the kind of magic evening I wish I could preserve like a butterfly under glass. I suppose that’s why people take so many photographs at weddings.
This family too is changing. Some of us still have our monkey jobs, but we are finding our passions. We are becoming writers, lawyers, artists, computer geeks, massage therapists, teachers, theater people. We are getting married. We are falling in love. We are, God help us, growing up. But still together.
Lesson Three: The Future
Getting engaged has changed my idea of what family means, made it more elastic. When I was a little girl, I was fiercely protective of my notion of family. I resented those who intruded into it. But this — this is different. Now I want to share.
My fiancé’s family is strange to me. He is an only child. His parents have been married (to each other, no less) for 40 years. Visiting them, we sit in a cluttered little room that is silent except for the sound of the Law & Order marathon. China plates and colored hurricane lamps adorn the shelves and ledges. His parents sit across the room, sedate, content to listen to our wedding plans. A quilt stitched with family names lies over the back of the flowered sofa. No one interrupts. There are no dogs barking, no doors slamming, no oven timers beeping, no phones ringing. We have their full and undivided attention.
It kind of freaks me out.
They are so nice, so solicitous, but I am not accustomed to this. My soon-to-be mother-in-law is hungry for every detail. She asks about the guest list. She asks about the bridesmaids’ dresses. She queries me about the flowers and the cake and the menu. When I try to tell my own mother about these things, someone or something inevitably interrupts. My sister wants her to make lunch. My other sister asks for her help brushing the dog. “Just a minute, honey,” she says to me, harried, as the dryer emits a high-pitched buzz. I follow her from room to room. It drives me a little crazy, but this is how my family is, boisterous and busy and big.
I want to give him this. I know my fiancé worries about his parents, who are much older than mine. I know he misses his grandparents, who have all passed away. But I am rich in family. I’ve got it in spades. Not just three parents, but three siblings, a grandmother, two grandfathers, step-grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, dogs, cats, even an annoyingly ear-piercing bird.
I have enough to share.