A commenter on my last post said she was disappointed that I’d referred to my father and stepmother’s kids as “their kids” instead of “my siblings.” Oh dear. I get hopelessly tangled in semantics whenever I try to describe my family. The fact is, I don’t distinguish between full and half and step siblings in my head (actually, I don’t HAVE any full siblings, since my parents only begat me). But after years and years of blithely saying “my sister this” and “my dad that”, and getting puzzled looks and being interrupted by people saying, “Wait, WHICH sister? You mean your REAL father, or your STEP father?” I started tweaking the way I talked about them–but not the way I thought about them.
(This same thing, by the way, happens to me whenever I try to answer truthfully the innocent, pro forma question “Where are you from?”)
It gets more complicated when I can’t refer my parents and siblings by name, just for clarity’s sake (though even that is something I do to accommodate other people, who only have one set of parents, poor things, and thus find it bewildering when I say “my dad” twice in one sentence to refer to two different people). At any rate, to clear things up for the record, here’s the long version (but still not the full epic–we have infinite permutations of by marriage and once removed in our wildly branching family tree) of who’s who in my immediate family.
When I was about two, my mother and father, who were obscenely young when they married (eighteen and twenty-one, respectively) separated. When I was nearly four, my mom met my first stepfather. There had been other boyfriends–one in particular, a grad student in English who was always kind to me, stands out–but my future stepfather swept my mom right off her feet. And then he swept both of us off to Montana, where we lived in a tiny log cabin with only wood stoves for both cooking and heating, eighty miles from Missoula at the edge of the Bob Marshall wilderness. I was the only kid in the district not old enough to attend school, so I didn’t get out much. I remember it vividly, though everyone tells me I shouldn’t be capable of remembering much of what happened so long ago. But I do, and I remember nearly pure happiness.
I adored my stepfather. He showed me the constellations, and taught me about birds and animals and fishing and hiking. Life was always challenging and exciting when he was around, though he was not an easy man to live with. He loomed like a giant in my life. Then, after thirteen years together, he left my mother for another woman. (He married her, produced two daughters, and then left her for someone else. She remarried and had a son with her second husband almost exactly when my older son was born. I have an excellent photo of the two boys–my ex-stepfather’s ex-mistress’s son from a subsequent marriage, and my firstborn son from my first and only marriage–hanging their upside-down heads through the pop-top of my sister’s VW camper, a close sibling to the VW bus we spent half our childhood chugging around the country in.)
Technically, of course, the sister with the pop-top bus is only my half sister. Everyone still with me? Any questions?
A digression: My sister was the live-in au pair, if you can call an older half/step sister an au pair, for her ex-stepmother and new husband for a year. I lived in the same town at the same time, so we all hung around together. I’d eat supper over at the house with them from time to time–my (half) sister, her (half) sisters, their little (half) brother, his father, and their mother, a woman I once swore vehemently I’d never talk to. But what, I ask in all seriousness, would be the point of that? Last year my mother, the woman who’d been rather brutally left, sent her former rival a letter wishing her well and expressing sympathy for some acute suffering she, the Other Woman, had been through. Time marches on.
(I have had to go back and revise that paragraph about four times, and I’m still not sure I got it all right. We lack a word for ex-stepparent. It frustrates me immensely–when I talk about, say, my former stepfather, I end up using the past tense, as if he were dead. He’s not dead. He’s just not my stepfather any more. There should be a term–stepfather emeritus? At any rate, I do apologize for making your heads spin.)
My mother is remarried too, and quite delighted (she now realizes) to no longer be with my stepfather–the man she once would have done anything to keep. There’s a lot to admire about my mother, but her refusal to accept standard notions of guilt and punishment may be her most admirable trait. Sure, you can hold a grudge until you die. It will do you no good, and do the person who wronged you no harm, but you are welcome to it. My mother, to her immense and neverending credit, chose to deny bitterness and get on with the rest of her life. If you can possibly make peace with people, why not?
She was thirty-six when my stepfather left. I was sixteen, a senior in high school. My sister was ten, and my brother only seven. The divorce–my second, their first–was hard on all of us for a long time.
Afterward, it felt to me as if my charmed childhood was irrevocably over. Growing up, other peoples’ parents seemed painfully dull compared to mine. I was vain about my parents. I liked that they were younger, better looking, more bohemian, more fascinating, braver and more daring than my friends’ parents, than almost any grownups I knew. Other peoples’ fathers were lawyers or bankers or something equally boring; mine, I’d tell people proudly, was a writer. “What kind of writer?” people would ask, and I’d puff myself up even more and say, “A FICTION writer,” with a little toss of my head. (In my mind, any other kind of writer didn’t count.) I daresay there were plenty of people–teachers, acquaintances, and the like–who never knew that I was not my stepfather’s biological child. After all, I called him “Daddy”. There was never any sense that my sister and brother, once they were born, were the “real” children while I was not. And when he left, as I said, we were all devastated.
(I promised you a happy story, I know. But I didn’t promise you a story that was ALL happy. Have faith.)
Anyway, while my stepfather and my mother were together, we moved around all the time, which I also adored. And nearly every summer we went on some crazy odyssey looking for birds. My little sister was born when I was in first grade (we were living off-season in a beach house on a barrier island in South Carolina) and my brother was born when I was nine and a half (we were living on sixteen acres in southeastern Colorado, outside a mining town so sparsely populated that there were only seven kids in the whole third grade–four boys, two other girls, and me.) After two years, we moved into the town proper, to a ramshackle Victorian house my parents fixed up, then promptly vacated the minute it was finished. Another year in a different tiny beach house, and then it was back to Colorado (Boulder, this time) where my mom started law school. I was in seventh grade. My sister was in kindergarten, and my little brother had just turned two.
My school situation was similarly chaotic. I went to kindergarten in Germany (we lived there briefly after Montana) and then to a new school in first grade, new school in second grade, new school in third grade. New school in sixth grade, new school in seventh grade, boarding school in tenth grade. Until my ex-husband and I moved here, to this house I’m still reluctantly inhabiting, I had never spent more than three consecutive years in any one place.
Conventional wisdom says that upheaval is bad for children. Moving is bad, stability is good. But as we tooled around the country in our VW bus with the pop-top and the curtains, we had an absolutely wonderful time. One summer we put 13,000 miles on it. Everything was an adventure. I liked switching schools. I liked being so close to my brother and sister and parents. We were not like other people. We were perhaps a bit full of ourselves, but we were having fun.
Conventional wisdom also says that divorce is bad for children. But if my parents hadn’t divorced, I would never have known my brother and sister, nor my stepfather, who made me so happy for so many years before he made me sad. Still, we all (even my mother) came through the other side, as one does. This is, of course, an invaluable lesson. I may even have been riding a bit high on my horse after my stepfather left my mother. (Feeling you’ve been victimized will do that to a person.) In time, I got over that as well. And, as I said, everyone in question remarried and moved on–my stepfather, my mother (twice!), my stepfather’s ex-mistress who became his wife, and so on and so on, like fractals.
Next entry: My father, my stepmother, the rest of my brothers and sisters, my next stepfather, and even the one after that. Stay tuned!