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Sometimes a Family Is Drawn From an Array of Possibilities


I come from a small family. A reunion would make a cozy dinner party. Unless you included everyone who has been family but isn't anymore.

Throughout its variegated history, my family has expanded and contracted convulsively, like a prehistoric invertebrate trying to evolve. The sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents who came along with my parents' respective second and third spouses have appeared on the horizon, then sunk with the sun as it set on each conjugal alliance. I don't care about most of them, but the ones I did value disappeared along with the rest. I often wish I had summoned the courage to hold on to some of these relationships despite the dissolution of the marriages that created them.

My mother's second marriage came swiftly after she and my father divorced in 1974. I was 8, my sister, Lynn, 6. My stepfather was laconic and I couldn't see what my mother saw in him. It was a shock to my sister and me when his children moved in. They were about our ages, but while we were introspective and reserved, they were loud and feral. It took years of excruciating family vacations before I started to feel the warmth of a large family, even though I did get burned now and then.

When I was 9, my father married a woman with twin teenage sons; for the first time, I had older siblings to look up to. They taught me how to skateboard, how to do a somersault off the diving board and tutored me on classic cars--I can still name the make, model and year of any car I pass. They set me on the path to becoming a man, a role I felt my father had always been too hot-tempered to manage. But that marriage ended by my 12th birthday, and my ex-stepbrothers drove out of my life forever in their two-tone mulberry and mauve 1954 Chevy pickup.

Several years later when I was at college at UCLA, my mother called to say she was divorcing my stepfather. I sobbed over the phone. Relief was probably the major motive, but I also felt I had been cheated out of a family I had just begun to value.

A year after that divorce, our mother's second husband contacted my sister at college in San Francisco and took her out to lunch. "It was a strange situation," she says, "like we were seeing if there was anything left between us. But we had nothing to say to each other."

This was the first healthy glimmer I had seen in the haze of our family--Lynn and our former stepfather had taken responsibility to continue or break off their relationship.

Susan Picascia is a family therapist who often deals with such issues. "You can have relationships with step relatives, or not, independent of what your parents choose for themselves," she says. "This takes some maturity, including a healthy sense of self. It also requires some risk-taking."

I had no rubric for risk-taking to follow, so I let these relationships fall by the wayside. But Picascia contends that "healthy parents can help their children continue to have contact with step relatives after a divorce, or can soften the blow of loss." She adds that this loss is an "opportunity for children, if they are old enough, to take charge of whom they call family."

My boyfriend, Philip, has come away from his mother's failed second marriage with some strong family bonds. "In that huge sea of new people," he says, "there was one cousin who was obviously copacetic with us. Since the divorce, she's stayed in our lives as complete bedrock family."

Today, my family consists of Philip, my sister, my best friend Hillary, and my stepsister Anne, from my father's third marriage. They are my family of choice.

But now, another stepfamily looms in the distance. My grandfather recently remarried to a woman with an immense family and an iron will to keep it together. I was daunted and perplexed by meeting all these new relatives at the wedding last year. Then I remembered Philip telling me what his great-aunt Margaret said years ago at a well-attended funeral: "Aren't families wonderful? Just look at all these people you'd never dream of getting to know otherwise." And I laughed at my luck at having been given so many new possibilities all at once.

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