They range from the Sopranos to the Cosbys to the single mom down the block. They've known you all your life, and that's no small thing. They're your family. And yes, they may be loving, maddening, critical, inspiring, horrendous (or more likely a combination of the above), but they signal one very important thing: You are not alone.
When I was 14 years old, I spent a year in Wales as an exchange student. I stayed with a family called the Couches, one of the wealthiest families in the tiny village of Pontnewynydd. Ron and Ceinwen were my host parents; they owned a lovely stone house with a half-acre garden and they had two sons, Gary, 21, and Paul, 19. Gary lived with his wife in a cottage in one corner of his parents' garden. Paul would be married the next summer and would live with his wife in the cottage in the opposite corner. The seven of us sat down to dinner every night as a family, sometimes for breakfast and lunch, too. We all went on weekend outings—to visit a castle or to see a play at Stratford-upon-Avon or to compete in a kind of road rally/treasure hunt that was particularly exciting given the narrow country lanes. In the summertime we went together to their cottage in Tenby on the coast, and the rest of the year both boys worked for their father in the tiling business that his father had started. They all seemed to love one another very much, including the current and future daughters-in-law.
Stepping from my family into this one felt not so much like crossing from North America to Great Britain as it did from, say, Earth to Alpha Centauri. My year there was by far the happiest of my childhood, though even at the time an aura of, if not impossibility, at least fantasy surrounded it. Now as I write this, I keep double-checking my memory to make sure I'm not making up that family, that year, and the entire Rotary Club exchange program that made it possible. I cried all the way back across the Atlantic.
Short of being raised in a 19th-century orphanage or by a nomadic pack of wolves, I can't imagine a less family-focused lineage than my own. My father was an only child; his mother died more than 30 years before I was born, his father, more than 40. My mother's mother died in childbirth with my mother, and my mother's father abandoned my newborn mother and her 1½-year-old sister the very next day. My mother and her sister, Jean, were raised by their aunt and uncle, but they ran away to Broadway (with a little encouragement from starstruck Aunt Ermie) when they were 12 and 14. My mother adored New York, beginning her career as a singing/dancing comedian and not missing her Spiceland, Indiana, junior high school one bit. But Jean found New York corrupt and distasteful, eventually returning to Indiana and blaming the aging aunt for sullying her reputation and ruining their lives. Jean's ingratitude toward Ermie infuriated my mother so much it caused a rift between the sisters. Or at least this is the side of the story I heard—my mother's side; the silence between the sisters was so deep and long-lasting, I never met my aunt Jean.
My mother's father called her for the first time ever from his deathbed and asked if she would come shake his hand. I was in my early twenties, she in her early sixties, though it was such a nonevent in our household I can't remember the exact year. The day after he called, she flew to Florida, and when she returned and I asked her what happened, she said, "I walked in the room, shook his hand, and walked back out again. That's what he asked for, so that's what I did."
Ir probably goes without saying that since neither of my parents had much in the way of family, they weren't that great at making one of their own. As a childless only child, I am apparently not so hot at it either.
In a recent visit to my father, I smiled to hear him explain to my new husband, Martin, "Pam had a lot of personal freedom as a child," which may be one of the great understatements of the century. My parents lived in pursuit of a relatively few pleasures: sun, sand, alcohol, European cities, and great Italian food. Because of one or another of these pursuits, I was often left to "babysit myself" for days at a time. Today I suppose they would have been put in jail, though I was such a pinnacle of responsibility that it's very likely they would never have been found out.
I suppose it was all that "personal freedom" that has led me to spend a good part of my life searching for substitutes, a family, as my friend Karla would say, of re-creation versus procreation.
My ranch high in the Colorado mountains—which everyone tells me (some of them pointedly) would be so perfect for kids—has become my substitute family headquarters, especially in summer. My house has only two bedrooms, but I have a couple of old cabins down by the river and 120 acres for tents. It's rare that on a given summer night I'm cooking dinner for fewer than six people, and if I made a list of all my favorite things on earth, cooking for a kitchen full of friends would definitely make the top ten.
In the fall I invite 12 writing students here for two weeks of intensive work. The students sleep in town, but I cook all their meals and we eat together at my big kitchen table. There is always somebody living here besides me and, now, Martin: a student, a dog sitter, a friend who's in the middle of a divorce or a job change or a nervous breakdown. This land I live on is healing land—even the biggest skeptic can't deny it—and no one who comes for even a few days leaves unchanged. I do a lot of talking about my responsibility to share this ground with others, but I am well aware that the revolving-door policy at this place gives me what I need: a fairly stable, if constantly rotating, family.
"Was it possible that another renegade from my lonely clan existed?"
We Hear You!