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Summer of 2000. We are on vacation in Chincoteague, VA. Me, my husband, Dan, our two children and grandmother (Dan’s mother and the best mother-in-law in the world). Grandma is a given. We never leave without her.
One day we get a call from Dan’s father, Frank. He and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Patty, are leaving for a few days to visit us. It’s good! Grandfather and grandmother have been divorced for a quarter of a century, but in that inimitable way of which 1/84th of divorced couples are capable, they have remained friends. The quarter century of their marriage 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. OK, now Pam is my stepmom, only she’s not married to my dad. Not anymore. She and he were married throughout my childhood. Fifteen of my formative years, she was there every summer and on vacation when I left New York and traveled into the wilderness of northwestern Pennsylvania to be with this part of my family. She is the mother of my two sisters. She was the one who taught me how to play Scrabble, how to make a meatball, and the importance of spending summers having fun instead of honing my math skills, like my other kindergarten unit (biological ) hoped I would.
So Pam calls. Pam has been married to Paul for years now, and he’s cool too. They are in Virginia and want to spend a few days in Chincoteague. It’s good! It will be a party.
And it’s. My kids, Win and Maggie, ages 10 and 7 at this point, don’t blink when they step out onto the screened-in deck that afternoon to see this conglomeration of… well, members family…all sitting around drinking cold beer and discussing the upcoming election (Gore versus Bush).
Paul (my ex-mother-in-law’s husband, also defined as my stepsisters’ father-in-law) is as interested in history and philosophy as my husband, and both my in-laws have degrees superiors in history. They could talk all night. Patty, my father-in-law’s girlfriend (you could think of her as my husband’s quasi-mother-in-law) is a people person who has a lifetime of stories to tell about her years as the manager of a group home, skier and attendant on a transcontinental train). She and Pam (remember who she is?) get along very well and converse enthusiastically. Pam holds a doctorate in psycho-educational processes. The group dynamic is surely not lost on her. Nor on me. I sit down and watch.
Later we go to dinner and sit at a huge round table overlooking the creek. Children mingle with these loved ones, taking turns visiting around the table, sitting on a variety of towers, or challenging yet another willing victim to a quick game of hangman.
Later still, back on deck, we light candles and split into teams for a rousing game of Cranium, the ultimate board game. Teams are a great hodgepodge. First team: Win, his grandmother and Paul. (Paul: Win’s mother’s father’s ex-wife’s husband, right? Win knows him as “Paul”. Paul is cool.) Paul sculpts a strand of DNA from from plasticine and Win guesses correctly. Well done all around. Another team: Dan, my husband, Pam, my ex-mother-in-law and Patty, Dan’s father…remember? At any rate. It’s silly and wonderful. Maggie, Grandpa and I are the third team. The teams are working. Everything works, somehow.
You hear a lot about modern families (two moms or two dads), blended families (the Brady Bunches), his families (divorced with step-siblings hanging all over the family tree), and the vague term , non-traditional families. Traditional is a word like normal. It can be so easily misunderstood 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, it may be as sacrosanct as any worn-out, culturally approved ritual.
Perhaps the only thing that is universally traditional in the concept of “family” is the bond forged by love, loyalty and responsibility. Looking around that screened porch, seeing those familiar faces by candlelight, I saw my family. “These are people I love,” I then perhaps thought (prone to soft, well-formulated thoughts). The porch and the evening itself were as full as my heart at that time. Full of this hodgepodge of exceptional people stuck together in one family.
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