Elizabeth Lesser is fortunate to have a loving family, but it took a child outside her immediate circle to teach her that family has no boundaries.
The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small. — Mother Teresa

It's the end of a hot and humid August day and I am in my vegetable garden with Eli, squatting over the fuzzy leaves of a vine, searching for the perfect-sized cucumbers to make what my mother called "refrigerator pickles." These were my favorite delicacy when I was growing up, as they were for my sons, and now are for the current youngest member of the family, Eli, who is 10. Eli is my ex-husband's son from his second marriage, my sons' half-brother, and a frequent visitor to our house, especially during August, when we make pickles together.

It's been a great summer for cucumbers, and the vines twist and climb all over the garden. Eli and I are amassing a huge harvest and enjoying the soft air and the buzzing sounds of late summer, when Eli says,

"What is your title to me?"

"What?" I ask, not quite understanding what he means.

"Are you my mother-in-law?"

"Oh," I laugh, suddenly grasping what he's getting at. "You know, I don't think there is a title for what we are to each other. There should be."

"You're not my step-mother," he says. "I know that. I think I'll call you my double-step-mother. Double-step for short."

I look at his beautiful face, which has always reminded me of my first son's face, and I am stuck by the ways in which love will grow like an unruly cucumber vine if you give it enough time and space. Years ago, when Eli was about to be born, my heart shriveled in anticipation of a baby who would be my boys' brother, but not my own child. I felt about as spacious as a clam.

But my sons fell hard for Eli the moment he was born. They liked to baby sit for him at our house, which, after about a half hour, meant me taking care of him. I figured they were responding to some sort of ancient and tribal instinct, when a family's structure was much less tightly defined. So, instead of banishing Eli from my heart, I followed the lead of my kids, and I fell in love with him. Fortunately, my big-hearted husband, who has never met a child he didn't want to play with, was equally enamored of Eli.

Soon, he was part of our family. I kept his favorite juice in the refrigerator and the treats he wasn't allowed to have at his own house in the cupboard. Before he learned my name, he called me Cookie Lady. He seemed equally comfortable with all of us, and unconcerned with bloodline. We were family—his brothers, me, my husband, my stepson. Even after the boys left for college, he visited me and my husband, mostly, I think, for cookies, and the refrigerator pickles.

How to widen the circle of your family

Excerpted from Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. © 2004 by Elizabeth Lesser. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.


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