Fruit-Salad Family Tree

Deep breath. Here goes.

My ex-husband, the oldest of six, is also my stepbrother. In my birth family, I am the oldest of five. In the family that formed after my mother married my-then-husband’s father, I became one of eleven. All my in-laws, in fact, are now my siblings. Except for my ex-father-in-law who is now my stepfather.

And that leaves out, of course, the marriages formed by the former spouses of my mother and stepfather. And the fact that my son could, I suppose, be viewed as his father’s nephew.

It is at this point in the “begats” that someone usually makes a crack about Appalachia or, as one former acquaintance did, starts air-strumming and humming the tune from “Deliverance.” I try to forgive. They know not of which they strum.

All this is top of mind because I recently embarked on a quest to understand more about the families we forge outside our families of origin – our circle of friends.

I asked, “Are friends really the families we make ourselves?”

The responses are still coming in and they are amazing, unique, and are forcing me to revisit every assumption I have ever made about the ties that connect us to other human beings. I look forward to sharing them in future posts and sparking a conversation we can continue.

I’ve learned one thing already, though. Our first families seem to guide how we go about building those families that come next. These “first families” are the ones into which we are born but they can also include the ones made for us in the wake of divorce and remarriage, the so-called “blended family.”

Ours was thrown into the processor around the time that most of the kids were still in their teens or just verging on them. A slash of legal blade-work and siblings suddenly lived in separate houses or separate towns; teenagers who may have been classmates, friends or strangers were suddenly sharing the bathroom, competing for the keys to the car and parental attention, and carrying wounds and questions that go unspoken or, if asked, unanswered. Who were we now? Who were our parents? What were we supposed to feel about these other people thrust into our lives, never mind the ones that were suddenly and completely absent?

Nearly four decades later, most of my sibs and steps can recall those early days pretty clearly. As one stepbrother puts it, “there are wounds that don’t heal completely.”

But time has been kind in many respects. For one thing many of us are older now than our parents were when all of the big changes went down. Life, we’ve learned, is not simple and it goes fast. My stepbrother who speaks movingly of wounds he can remember also says, “with age comes perspective and, I hope, wisdom, and I now have more empathy in my heart. Two grown people, each married with children, fell out of love with their spouses and fell in love with one another and made some extremely difficult choices so that they and those they love could have a chance at happier lives.”

“Being forced to have new brothers and sisters is always a tough sell… no one likes to be forced to do anything, but I guess we all just conceded at some point that it “is what it is” and, wanting to support those we love most, we just went along for the ride…for the most part.” – My stepbrother

He points out that the ride has been both individual and collective. We’ve all grown at different rates; geography, experience, and personality continue to make clear how different we all are. But, as one of his sisters says, “that is family” no matter how it came into being.

Although alliances are generally strongest among the siblings born to one side or the other, we rarely describe our family solely in terms of the one into which we were born, except to keep things simple for the uninitiated. As one stepsister puts it, “When asked about my family, my response usually involves a a quick rundown of my immediate family and then with my hands waving — step families here and there and the other.”

Within those who are “here and there” are a grandmother who loved her her son’s stepchildren as she loved her own grandchildren, a stepsister who has never hesitated to use her legal expertise, not to mention her clear-eyed sense of humor, to help any of us or our kids, brothers from both sides who have roasted pigs together, cleared land, and solved the problems of the world over the round oak table in the kitchen of our parents. There are the survivors of 12-step programs whose perceptiveness and caring have touched us all whether we were ready for them or not, an engineer, self-employed contractors and small business owners, a marketing executive, a woman who has made her living doing for other families what their own can’t, musicians, a singer and actress, mothers, artists, fabulously-fun aunts. The compassion, intelligence and resilience of this group shine, perhaps all the brighter for what it took to achieve them.

“I kind of brag about being from a large family, and all the practical experience it provides. I used to think that we were unique in the level of drama that took place. Turns out, not so. But still, it is our story. Unique to us.” – My sister

As I consider my family these days, the blender metaphor fades and our family looks more like one of those odd but beautiful “fruit salad” trees. These don’t spring from a single seed; branches are grafted in place. Each branch bears its own unique fruit but weathers the same elements, draws sustenance through shared roots.

What does your “first family” look like? How about your currently family/families? Do you agree that friends are the families we make ourselves?

First in a periodic series on friends, family and how they are sometimes the same

(For a look at a real “fruit salad tree, go to http://www.fruitsaladtrees.com.)

7 thoughts on “Fruit-Salad Family Tree

  1. I heard one fellow say that instead of a family tree he had a family thicket.

    I grew up with 2 sets of grandparents. My grandchildren, due to several marriages of their grandparents, have 5 grandfathers and 4 grandmothers. This is their reality and they are thriving in all of the love.
    I like the way the new normal is evolving!

  2. My ex-husband lives with my husbands ex-wife, so I guess we are well on the way to creating a fruit salad family tree of our own for our 4 kids to add too. Sometimes it’s nice to know we are not the only ‘overly blended’ family out there!

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  4. Betsy, Thanks for the belly laugh. I’m not sure if you meant for your first paragraph to make people laugh, or just state the facts. I’m amazed that your parents were able to keep things straight. I’m one of 5 girls. When mom was really mad, she had to name us all before she could swat the right one with her flip flop. Others (my current husband for one) think it odd that my re-married ex-husband is still a part of our extended family. All the cousins still consider him Uncle Jimmy. Our divorce was ugly. The friendship that grew out of our separateness a blessing.

    Married to a naval officer at 18, I/we were uprooted every couple of years. That whole thing about the Navy being an adventure was not true for me. Yet in each new place I/we always found a circle of friends who understood the life of sea going nomads. I moved back home 20 years ago to care for my parents. I know and love people at church, but have never created a lasting group of friends to hang out with. It’s hard for a caregiver to hang out with anyone. But that’s another story.

    My Internet/blog friends have filled the void. They have never failed to love and support me even when only a couple of us have actually met. I can remember spending hours on the phone, smoking cigarettes the whole time, chatting away with a neighbor who lived right down the street. Now I email friends all over the country. I do think this group of friends is a like a family.

  5. Pingback: Confessions of a Bathroom Reader | Elizabeth Marro

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