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Summer 2000. We are on vacation in Chincoteague, VA. Me, my husband, Dan, our two kids, and grandma (Dan’s mom and the best mother-in-law in the world). Grandma is a fact. We never go out without her.
One day, we get a call from Dan’s father, Frank. He and his girlfriend of 20 years, Patty, are coming to visit us for a couple of days. This is fantastic! Grandfather and grandmother have been divorced for a quarter of a century but, in that inimitable way that 1/84 of divorced couples can do, they have remained friends. The quarter of a century they were married was enough to ensure a lasting bond between two people who share three children, political and religious ideals and many memories.
Then we get another call, from Pam. Okay, now Pam is my stepmom, except she’s not married to my dad. Not anymore. She and he got married during my childhood. Fifteen of my formative years, she was there every summer and holiday break when I left NYC and headed to the desert northwest of PA to be with that part of my family. She is the mother of my two sisters. She’s the one who taught me how to play Scrabble, how to make a meatball, and that it’s important to spend my summers having fun instead of honing my math skills like I expected my other (biological) maternal unit to do.
So call Pam. Pam has been married to Paul for years, and he’s great too. They are in Virginia and want to spend a few days in Chincoteague. This is fantastic! It will be a party.
And so it is. My kids, Win and Maggie, 10 and 7 at the moment, don’t miss it when they go out on the screening deck that afternoon to see this conglomeration of…well, family members.. .all seated. drinking cold beer and discussing the upcoming election (Gore vs. Bush).
Paul (my ex-stepmother’s husband, also defined as my sisters’ stepfather) is as interested in history and philosophy as my husband, and my in-laws have advanced degrees in history. They could talk all night. Patty, my father-in-law’s girlfriend (you could think of her as almost my husband’s step-mom) is a person with a lifetime of stories to tell from her years as a group home manager, bum, and assistant ski. on a transcontinental train). She and Pam (remember who she is?) get along very well and chat enthusiastically. Pam has a doctorate in psychoeducational processes. Group dynamics are certainly not lost with her. Neither to me I sit and watch.
Later we go to dinner and sit at a huge round table overlooking the cove. Children mingle among these loved ones, taking turns visiting around the table, sitting in various laps, or challenging another willing victim to a quick game of hanging.
Later still, back on deck, we light candles and split into teams for an exciting game of Cranium, the ultimate party game. The teams are an excellent mix. First team: Win, his grandmother and Paul. (Paul: Win’s mom’s dad’s ex-wife’s husband, right? Win knows him as “Paul.” Paul’s cool.) Paul sculpts a strand of DNA out of play-doh and Win guess correctly Greetings all around. Another team: Dan, my husband, Pam, my ex-stepmom, and Patty, Dan’s dad…remember? Whatever. It’s all silly and wonderful. Maggie, Grandpa and I make up the third team. The teams work. It all works, somehow.
You hear a lot about modern families (two moms or two dads), blended families (the Brady Bunch), their families (divorced with half-siblings hanging all over the family tree), and the very vague term, non-traditional families. Traditional is a word like normal. It can be easily misinterpreted or misinterpreted.
The traditional family is as varied as the family tradition. If the tradition in your family is to eat cheesecake at two in the morning on the first Tuesday of the month, that may be as sacrosanct as any culturally approved ritual.
The only thing that is, perhaps, universally traditional about the concept of “family” is the connection forged by love, loyalty and responsibility. Looking around that screened porch, seeing those familiar faces in the candlelight, I saw my family. “These are people I love,” I might have thought then (being prone to mushy, well-worded thoughts). The porch and the night itself were as full as my heart at that moment. Full of this mixture of exceptional people stuck in a family.
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