My family tree looks like an inverted March Madness tournament bracket. Orderly lines, 90 degree angles, grands begetting parents begetting off-spring. My husband’s side of the family, in sharp contrast, looks more like the frenetic X’s and O’s hastily drawn on the sidelines of football game moments from the end of the fourth quarter when a come-from-behind win is possible only through the miraculous completion of a Hail Mary play. Madcap arrows pointing every which way, scribbles of ideas launched at the very last minute. The players include ex’s and oh’s…and fulls and halves and steps and surrogates. There are twists and turns and betrayals and triumphs and stories untold.
And when I met them, I didn’t quite know what to do.
But then I heard my husband laugh. I had never heard it sound quite like that before. And in all the years since it has been confirmed- the uproariously joyful sound erupts only when he is with his brother. And by brother I technically mean his ex-step-brother from a marriage that imploded in the late 80’s. Exploded might be a better description to help you imagine the collateral damage. But technicalities don’t count. These adult boys have known one another since they were five (or five and six, but that’s an entirely different story). The point is, they have been brothers ever since. They will be brothers forever because they choose to be brothers every day.
And when I stood in the kitchen recently, I didn’t know quite what to do.
Then I remembered Rebecca. At age 42 I may not have ever baked a pie, but I had watched it done over the Fourth of July in Kentucky at what we all call Cousin Camp. It was not hand-me-down knowledge, but hand-me-sideways from my husband’s ex-step-aunt’s daughter. I strapped on my fabulous retro apron and got to work. Baking pies as if it were a family tradition. Because it is. Because family is the collection of people to whom we give love.
But when the phone rings, I still don’t know quite what to do.
It could be from any of them- Kenya to California, or one of the Kentuckians in between. The phone rings, the caller ID lights up, I smile knowing who is on the other end of the line. Then I reflexively toss the phone to my husband. I assume they are calling for him. He is their family- why would they want to talk to me?
Ingrained assumptions are tricky to recognize, habits are hard to break. We go through the motions, repeating patterns set down decades before. We follow traditions that began for reasons we no longer remember. So what now? Life doesn’t come prefabricated out of the box. We have to put together the pieces.
We are fam-i-ly: my ex-step-brother-in-law and me. (Although I find it much easier to call him Doug). And Beth, and David, Rachel, Peter, (Sophia!), Nathan, Rebecca, Katie, Sam, Allie, Derek, Quinn, Della, Beverly, Sandra, Lauren, Terry, Phil, Rafi, Gabe and Jamila. I love you all.
As I sit down on Thursday with my play-off bracket family, I’ll be thankful for my Hail Mary clan. And you, dear reader? Who will you assemble? Whose call will you answer? Who do you love? Keep me posted.