Below is a piece from my archives. Something I wrote several years ago about a summer several years before that.
Summer 2000. We’re on vacation in Chincoteague, VA. Me, my husband, Dan, our two children, and Grandma (Dan’s mom and the best mother-in-law in the world). Grandma is a given. We never vacate without her.
One day, we get a call from Dan’s dad, Frank. He and his girlfriend of 20 years, Patty, are heading down for a couple days to visit with us. This is great! Grandpa and Grandma have been divorced for a quarter century but, in that inimitable way that 1/84th of divorced couples are able to, they have remained friends. The quarter century they were married was enough to ensure a lasting bond between two people who share three children, political and religious ideals and a lot of memories.
Then we get another call, from Pam. Okay, now Pam is my stepmother, only she is not married to my dad. Not any more. She and he were married to one another throughout my childhood. Fifteen of my formative years, she was there every summer and holiday break when I left New York and made my way to the wilderness of northwest PA to be with that part of my family. She is the mother of my two sisters. She is the one who taught me how to play Scrabble, how to make a meatball and that it is important to spend summers having fun instead of brushing up on my math skills, as my other (biological) maternal unit hoped I would be doing.
So Pam calls. Pam has been married to Paul for years now, and he’s cool too. They are in Virginia and want to stop by Chincoteague for a couple days. This is great! It’ll be a party.
And it is. My children, Win and Maggie, ages 10 and 7 at this point, don’t bat an eye when they come out to the screened in deck that afternoon to see this conglomeration of … well, family members… all sitting around drinking cold beer and discussing the upcoming election (Gore vs. Bush).
Paul (my ex-stepmother’s husband, also defined as my half-sisters’ step-father) is as interested in history and philosophy as my husband is, and both 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 my husband’s nearly-step-mother) is a people person with a lifetime of stories to tell of her years as a manager of a group home, ski bum and attendant on a transcontinental train). She and Pam (you remember who she is?) get along great and converse enthusiastically. Pam has a PhD in psycho-educational processes. The group dynamics are surely not lost on her. Nor on me. I sit back and watch.
Later we go to dinner and sit at a huge round table overlooking the inlet. The kids mingle among these loved people, taking turns visiting around the table, sitting on a variety of laps or challenging yet another willing victim to a quick game of hangman.
Later still, back on the deck, we light candles and split into teams for a rousing game of Cranium, the ultimate party game. The teams are an excellent mishmash. First team: Win, his grandma and Paul. (Paul: Win’s mom’s dad’s ex-wife’s husband, right? Win knows him as “Paul.” Paul is cool.) Paul sculpts a strand of DNA out of play-doh and Win guesses correctly. Cheers all around. Another team: Dan, my husband, Pam, my ex-step-mom and Patty, Dan’s dad’s … 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 of talk about modern families (two moms or two dads), merged families (the Brady Bunch), his ‘n’ her families (divorced with step-siblings dangling all over the family tree) and the nicely vague term, non-traditional families. Traditional is a word like normal. It can be so easily misunderstood or misinterpreted. Traditional family is as varied as family tradition. If the tradition in your family is to eat cheesecake at two a.m. on the first Tuesday of the month, that may be as sacrosanct as any time worn, 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-in porch, seeing those familiar faces in the candlelight, I saw my family. “These are people I love,” I may have thought then (being prone to mushy, well-phrased thoughts). The porch and the evening itself were as full as my heart at that moment. Full of this hodgepodge of exceptional people glued together into a family.