Family is weird. It doesn’t matter what size. Big, small, blended, chosen — no matter how they’re put together, being part of a family can put you through the wringer, make you stronger, break you down or lift you up.
Often at the same time.
I come from a small family. Growing up, it was just my mom, her parents and myself. We were four people in a two-bedroom house.
As for extended family, I had no close cousins and only one aunt who lived in Maryland that I saw occasionally.
My mom and dad got divorced when I was very young, and I never had much of a relationship with my father — I last saw him when I was 14 — but, thanks to my grandfather, I never felt like I missed out. He was both grandfather and father to me and provided me with a positive male role model, a good work ethic and a love for football. He also provided the trait for baldness. So, a mixed bag, really.
My grandmother got to be just Grandma, which, I think, suited her just fine. She was a strong, opinionated lady who had her own ideas about most everything and an abiding love of basketball. She taught me how to fill out my first bracket for the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, how to follow three games at once and keep score in all three.
She also taught me how to make meatloaf and fried pork chops. A better deal than my grandfather’s, if you ask me.
As for my mom, well, she was my rock. She’s the one who picked me up when I fell down, tended my scrapes, cuts, bug bites, sunburns, heartbreaks and heartaches when I was small.
She helped me get to college when my natural procrastination flared up and I kept putting off filling out forms. She was there at both my weddings and she was there for me when they ended.
When Sarah — my second wife — died, my mother kept me together and helped me plan the memorial service and navigate the pitfalls that come from dealing with another family who also just lost a loved one.
I love all these people, but they also drove me crazy from time to time. I called my grandmother opinionated. She was also wrong on many occasions, but I could never get her to admit it.
My mother drove me nuts until the end. She was a talker. I guess that’s where I get it from, but as a child, her tendency to stop and chat in the middle of the grocery store left me frustrated and impatient.
Looking back, that was probably one of the few times she got to speak with other adults of her own age away from work. At home, she was both a mom and a daughter—a tightrope that can’t have been easy to walk.
As for my grandfather, well, I can’t really say all that much. Married to my grandmother, he learned to keep his head down.
The only thing that really bugged me was the fact that he gave me regular chores, like cleaning the bathroom and mowing the lawn. Also, there’s that whole baldness thing.
I spent some time thinking about family this past weekend. I don’t have much left beyond a few second cousins.
I do have my girls. They may be my stepdaughters, but I think of them as mine. Audra was 16 when her mother died; Allie was 15. They’re grown now and living in another state. I’ve only seen one of them — for about a week — since their mother died.
They live with their father and his new family up north while I’m rattling around on my own. It hasn’t been easy.
Audra’s been calling me Daddy since she was little, toting her stuffed dinosaur around the house and trying in vain to pet the cats, only one of which would allow it.
To them, she was a stranger who showed up every once in a while. For the most part, they weren’t having it.
To Allie, autistic and a bit more practical, I was “Rob.” To her sister, she was a pain in the behind. I still remember them fighting over the computer because Allie decided it was her turn. They were about 6 and 7. It was brutal. I feared for my life.
Audra and Allie are the kids I never had, small bundles of energy, glitter and Barbie doll hair. They became part of my family, filling a hole I hadn’t really noticed was empty until I filled it.
I speak to them on the phone whenever I can. They’re older now, beautiful young women who remind me of their mother. Constantly.
“That’s mom’s favorite ice cream.”
“Mom used to say that all the time.”
“Do it this way. That’s the way Mom did it.”
Each time either one of them does that, I get a fresh spike of grief. That’s fine. I can take it. Now, almost five years later, those spikes aren’t quite as sharp. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
My little girls need to remember their mother. I want that for them as much as I want anything.
I want them to be happy.
In the meantime, I’ll muddle along as best I can, trying to take care of the people I hold dear, my chosen family. I’m fortunate to have them.
I just hope I don’t talk their ears off.