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'90s FAMILY : All in Their Family : Ever wish you were one of the Cleavers? Or the Waltons? It doesn't mean you clan is dysfunctional. It's just a nice escape when things get rough.

August 30, 1995|ANN SHIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Did you ever wish your family resembled the Andersons of "Father Knows Best" or "The Waltons"? Imagine a father who was patient, wise and not bad to look at, and siblings who fought but ended the hour in a clinch. Sure, the grandparents might have been cantankerous and controlling, but they were revered anyway, while Mom hung out in the kitchen dripping cookie dough and unconditional love. Pure fantasy.

If you indulged in your own fantasy of life in some ideal family setting, you're in good company. You don't even need to be dysfunctional. While the fantasy family is a common refuge for people from unhappy homes, it offers a pleasant escape for everyone when home life is less than perfect.

Take Mary Rose Betten, actress and author of "People of the Passion" (Sheed & Ward, 1987). Betten grew up in a large, Roman Catholic family in southern Illinois.

"I always wished I belonged to some Methodist family, so we could go on church picnics," Betten says. "I don't know why that was so important to me, but we never went on picnics, and it seemed so civilized to sit on a blanket and have food in a hamper when all we ever used were brown paper bags."

As one of 10 children, her more serious fantasy involved having her parents to herself. "What always killed me was this girl, Pat, I knew in high school whose mother and father would come up to summer camp in the Ozarks to pick her up," Betten said. "They took her everywhere, and I'd think, imagine, one person with her parents."

Betten became a comedian in later life because, "It was the only way anybody would look at me."

For retired Methodist minister Charles Simmons, the source of dissatisfaction was his brother.

"I dreamed that someday I'd grow up and my brother would have stopped growing and I'd be bigger and able to get revenge, but he was too smart for that. He made friends with me before that happened," Simmons says.

Simmons' wife, Jeannette, muses, "I thought everyone wanted to be in another family, sort of like 'My Three Sons' where all the problems got solved in 30 minutes."

The Simmons' oldest son, Steve, had a fantasy that his parents stopped having children after him. Another fantasy unfulfilled.

Many imaginary families do seem to be the result of less-than-perfect siblings--or lack of them.

Los Angeles writer Bob Morris grew up with two sisters and always wanted an older brother. One day he saw Robert Mitchum on the big screen and adopted him on the spot.

While television and film have provided us with larger-than-life heroes and magical kingdoms, books have been around much longer to fuel our fantasies. Actress Ronnie Claire Edwards recently chose her fantasy family from literature as part of a writing workshop assignment.

"My own family was a fantasy anyway, they were so eccentric, so I'd like to have been part of a literary family," Edwards says.

"I'd like to have had Mark Twain as my father and Eudora Welty as my mother--good breeding," she says. "And I'd like to have had as some kin to me Willa Cather, Bret Harte and Cormack McCarthy, but I'm sure none of them would get along."

Marie Foran and her sister weren't close as children in Chicago, so Foran's literary family filled that void. "I thought 'Little Women' was so neat. All the sisters in that book got along," Foran says.

Books were the major source of entertainment when Nellie Day Harris, a retired Ventura teacher, grew up as an only child on the banks of the Mississippi River.

"I had to make up all my playmates. I was a good-sized teen-ager when I heard my first radio and it was mostly static," says Harris, 92. Her grandfather ran a small variety store and traded goods with local Native Americans. Harris daydreamed about being a Native American girl and gave herself the name of Wanda.

Her two daughters concocted an imaginary brother they named Roy. "Whenever they got into trouble, Roy did it," she says.

While some people reminisce with laughter about their childhood fantasies, others turn them over to therapists. Sacramento psychotherapist Nina B. Krebs, author of "Changing Woman, Changing Work" (MacMurray & Beck, 1993), thinks belief in the traditional family structure is at the core of much unhappiness.

"We have this mythology about the way people are supposed to live and very few people live that way," Krebs says. "Somehow, individuals have the idea that they're not as good as others if they're not from an intact family, but many people aren't."

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