dinner party
Photo: Thinkstock
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?"

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

Tonight my friends Leo and Tim from New York are coming to dinner. Tim is a playwright and Leo is just finishing NYU film school. They'll likely bring Bill, an acting teacher from L.A., and his friend Wendy. I'll be making grouper with a lime-and-chili sauce, and my signature garlic mashed potatoes, which Bill says are the best in the world. Tomorrow my friend Amanda is flying in from Seattle, Gail is driving up from Denver, and Doug is driving down from Steamboat Springs. I'll make organic prime rib, steamed turnips, spinach salad. After dinner we'll be doing the last of our packing for the Grand Canyon, where the five of us will join six other people we don't know as well, and the 11 of us will spend nearly three weeks on four rubber rafts riding the rapids of the Colorado. I'm in charge of rowing one of the boats and of the first six dinners. After 18 days of risking our lives together, of absorbing the mind-bending colors and shapes and shadows in the canyon, of making temporary homes along the riverbank, of eating and laughing and singing and most likely yelling and crying together, we will have become maybe not quite the Welsh Couches, but something it will be impossible not to call a family. As far as I can figure, that's the very best reason to go.

More from the O relationship vault: Aunt misbehavin'


Next Story