In the beginning it was always parents I was looking for. Father figures above all, since my father was even less parental than my mother, and then mother figures after her death in 1992. What I wished for most when I was a little girl was a big brother, though lately I find myself in a big-sister role with at least one male friend. I also seem to be sliding gradually from the role of child with my much older friends to the role of parent with my much younger friends. I find myself writing $100 checks and slipping them into letters to my young friend Jo, who's in massage school in Salt Lake City. I have been able to help three young men I met in Bolivia, Laos, and Tibet pay for college. I hear questions coming out of my mouth as my younger friends are about to pull out of my driveway, "Do you have enough gas money?" "Are you eating any vegetables at all these days?"
I was the only keeper of the rituals in my family of origin. I was the one who put the photos into albums, starting at the age of 5. I was the one who put my foot down about turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, cooking it myself as soon as I was tall enough to stand over the stove. I was the one who insisted on buying a tree even though I knew that come Christmas Eve we'd be hurtling down I-95 from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Boca Raton without a hotel reservation, listening to Casey Kasem's Christmas dedications—Silver Bells going out from Mary Lou in Toledo to Jerry in Duluth—my parents focused, almost rabidly, on a couple of days in the sun.
These days for Thanksgiving I normally round up all the full-grown (though not necessarily grown-up) orphans I can find in my mountain town—a place where full-grown orphans tend to congregate—and we drive to the desert of southern Utah in a car full of turkey and stuffing, camping gear and Coleman stoves. We go to a beautiful spot called Fisher Towers, claim one of the three campsites, dig a big hole in the ground, fill it with charcoal, and spend every bit of daylight cooking our turkey in the hole, our mashed potatoes, green beans, and pearl onions on the white gas Coleman stoves, and our pumpkin and pecan pies in cast-iron Dutch ovens. Instead of watching the Lions play the Bears after dinner, we watch Orion and the Pleiades on the rise and take turns saying out loud what we are thankful for.
Christmas as a grown-up has always been a little trickier for me. I either spend hundreds of dollars on handmade ornaments and stockings for all my horses, cats, and dogs, which makes me feel pathetic and desperate, or I plan to be somewhere like Laos or Tibet where I'm surrounded by non-Christian strangers, which makes me feel lonely and sad.
It has not escaped me that another person with my history would likely have gotten married at 16 and had a gaggle of children by 21. It has also not escaped me that something in me seems to prefer these "not quite real families" to an actual one. A simple failure of courage maybe, but perhaps it's only in the natural scheme of things for me to live out my parents' legacy of independence. My substitute families allow me to experience some of the best parts of familial intimacy without the immense responsibility of actual parenthood or the intricate web of expectation and demand that siblings and parents seem to put on one another. I love the freedom my life gives me to write books and see the world. At the same time I don't doubt that by having no real family to speak of, I am missing out on one of the richest patterns in the tapestry of life. My parents never let the fact that they had a child keep them from any of their professional or recreational pursuits. It is with bemusement (rather than disappointment or joy) that I realize I am living much as they did.
I got a call a few years ago from my only living relative besides my father: my cousin Jeff, Jean's son, who lives near Anchorage with his wife. The call woke me up, literally, and in my groggy confusion I tried to pretend I knew who he was, pretend this was just a normal, pleasant call between family members.
"Pam," he said, "I know how screwed up our family is. Why do you think I live in Alaska? I'd probably live in Siberia if they had better food."
A voice out of the wilderness. Was it possible that another renegade from my lonely clan existed? Jeff and I have exchanged Christmas cards every year since that call. One of these days, I always write, I'll make it up to Alaska, and he sometimes threatens to come to Colorado. But we are our mothers' children after all, and neither of us so far has done any rushing to the ticket counter, proving we have more confidence in our families of re-creation than the blood that runs in our veins.
Something that's impossible not to call a family