When someone mentions winning a lottery, most folks’ minds jump to the tickets sold at mini marts that (extremely rarely) result in big bucks. But there are other kinds of lotteries too, like when any of us finds ourselves in a situation where so much can go wrong but where things actually go very, very right.
I am getting to the age where I am going to more funerals. Those old enough to have been grandparents are long gone, and those of my parents’ generation are mostly into their 80’s, which should be a good, long life by almost anyone’s standards. I went to another funeral some time back which made me spend some time thinking about something that was once uncommon, but is becoming less so as time passes – the step family.
My parents divorced in the 1960’s and my father later remarried. I was nine years old in 1968, and the whole experience was a challenge for me. I may write more about this in the future, but for now, let’s just say that in my neighborhood in the midwestern suburbs of that time, I felt like a freak.
We have all watched (or at least heard of) The Brady Bunch on TV. The show’s premise was that a widower with three sons married a widow with three daughters, and they all lived happily ever after in a big house in southern California. My sister and I didn’t live the Brady Bunch lifestyle as 1) we continued to live mostly with our mother and 2) our stepmom didn’t bring kids of her own from a prior phase of life. One thing I never saw the Brady Bunch writers deal with was extended family. But we would have to. And it turned out to be a good thing.
Our stepmom Carol (a wonderful lady) came from a family much like that of our mother – in fact the two groups of families came of age only a county apart in the farming communities of northwestern Ohio. It should not be surprising that the two families would be a lot alike, and other than some small differences (Methodist instead of Lutheran, five siblings of the parents’ generation instead of three) the experiences were similar.
When the day came when we became introduced to Carol’s large extended family, I was not really ready. My introverted personality does not consider meeting lots of new people to be child’s play, but there we were. I cannot say that I remember the specific instance, but I do remember many different times for getting together in those early years. And in all of those times, I cannot remember a single bad experience.
The other kids welcomed us right into whatever they might have been playing. The aunts and uncles took a genuine interest in us, and were unfailingly warm and kind. The grandparents were just what the very best grandparents are supposed to be. It is one thing to be good to kids being brought into a big family, but it is quite another to treat them in a way that exhibited no favoritism. There were no second or third class grandchildren or nieces or nephews with this group – my sister and I stood on the same level playing field as all of the kids who had been born into the family.
I wish I could say that I fully reciprocated, but sadly I cannot. For most of our youth, my sister and I were a sample size of two in our neighborhood and in our circles of friends. It seems odd to say now, but we had no idea how this was all supposed to work. Our mother did not handle the rejection that is inherent in separation and divorce as well as others might have, but given our lack of experience, how could we know?
As an adult who has, by now, known many others affected by divorce and remarriage it is easy to look back and see that there were no choices to be made or sides to be chosen. In truth, we kind of saw that then, but we also recognized that wholeheartedly joining into this new family would be seen by our mother (whether reasonably or not) as more rejection, and we had no desire to cause any more hurt than was absolutely necessary. I wish I had been able to navigate these waters later when all these things would have been much more comprehensible to me.
This dynamic affected our relationship with our two younger brothers who came along as well. Visiting every third weekend and over periodic holidays is no way to build deep family ties, and the things that tug a teenager away from family and towards his circle of friends helps even less. I think we have pulled things together fairly well, but it could have been so much better.
The result was that we were close, but not too close. We were at some get-togethers and gatherings, but missed quite a few others. We were like those children at a summertime party who constantly run into and out of the house until some adult finally yells “Hey kids, stay in or go out, but you have to stop running through that door.” Fortunately, there was nobody minding the family’s real-life screen door. The door was always open to us, something that I knew and appreciated.
These wonderful people and how I had responded to them over the years rushed into my mind a few years ago when I got the news that Uncle Harold had passed away. I had known that he had been fighting some health problems, but had no idea how serious his condition was. I had already made up my mind to take the day from work and drive the one hundred miles to the funeral when I learned that his son was asking if I would be willing to be a pallbearer.
My first reaction was one of surprise. I had been expecting to offer my condolences from a respectful distance to leave space for those more closely related. But once again this family embraced me as a full member.
Today, I wish I had the opportunity to go back and make a second try at the two-family thing. I would be so much more successful at it if given a mulligan. But that is not the way these things work. All I can do is to appreciate and try to build on those relationships – I just wish that relationship-building was something that I was better at than I actually am.
In the decades that have gone by since I first found myself in the situation, I have heard so many stories where attempts at family blending went poorly. Those cases seem to outnumber the ones where things went really well. And with all of this additional information I can appreciate something now so much more fully than I could then: where things could have gone wrong in so many ways, I came up a winner. And I am thankful to the kind and generous people who made it so.
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