I called my stepfather yesterday afternoon and he answered my call on speakerphone because that’s just how he rolls.
“Hi, Jack!” I said. “What would you like for Father’s Day this year?”
There was silence just then but I didn’t worry that the call had dropped because I could still hear him doing that teeth-clicking thing that is maybe the very worst sound in the entire world and he does it all the time, including when he’s brushing his teeth, which you’d think would be an impossible feat but I’ve come to believe that the man can do anything.
“Do you want clothes? Is there a particular book written by some staunch Republican who I’d probably hate that you want to read?”
“I need a new bathing suit,” he said, and he seemed pleased to have come up with something because he usually doesn’t know what he wants for a present but it rarely matters because he is one of the best present receivers in the land. He likes everything I get him and he always looks so happy when he opens any present that’s wrapped with a springy kind of bow.
“Would you like matching floaties?” I asked – and he laughed.
There were a number of years there – years that probably add up to a decade – when Father’s Day was my least favorite day of the entire year. When you lose a father, seeing simply a commercial for Old Navy that shows a father happily posing with his kids in matching fleece vests is enough to kill what’s left of your heart. There’s really no avoiding it and all you can kind of do is take a deep breath and think that at least you had a father too for just a little while.
When I was in middle school, my mother married this man named Bill. I couldn’t stand Bill. He wasn’t mean and he wasn’t abusive, but I saw him as an unwelcome presence in my home. He was nice to me and I was usually pretty nice to him, but even then I knew that my mother was settling and I felt she was just better than that.
Bill never tried to be my father, and that was smart because I might have killed him if he had, but my mother would tell me that I had to get him a Father’s Day present every year because, after all, he was my stepfather.
“Yeah, but he’s not my father,” I would state bluntly and, like I said, it all went down during those middle school years where everyone is naturally pissed off anyway.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she would say. “He’s very nice to you.”
I did as I was told. I’d get him some generic gift and he was always quite gracious about it but just watching him peel off the wrapping paper made me feel dirty. It felt like a hurtful and unnecessary exercise for a kid who had already dealt with maybe too much at that point.
When my mother married Jack, I was instructed to get him Father’s Day presents too and I resented it for a little while because I was away at college when they first got together and it didn’t at all feel like he was a real parent to me. Again, I just did it. I don’t like fighting with my mother. And I don’t like hurting anybody when it can so easily be avoided.
Over the years, though, Jack and I grew close and now I couldn’t even imagine not buying him a present for that Sunday in June. I call him Jack, but I refer to him and my mother collectively as “my parents.” Just the other night I realized that he’s been in my life for longer than my father ever was and the thought made me choke up really fast but then I was able to smile for real because at least I am fortunate to have been given the gift of another parent who truly loves me, one I truly love right back.
But if you had tried to tell me back then that Jack and I would end up as being this loving and fiercely protective of one another, I wouldn’t have even laughed; I would have just stared at you blankly like you were a moron. It doesn’t matter how old you are when two families merge – it’s always uncomfortable and there’s always a learning curve and you always somehow insult someone without meaning to and everyone gets to the point of “Okay, now it feels normal!” at his or her own rate.
I think I got there last. But it makes sense that I did because I was the one most in the thick of it all. My sister and my stepsisters were older and already out of the house. My stepbrother was only about six and didn’t think there was anything weird about looking at me right after we met and declaring that I was his brand new sister while I just gazed at the adorable blonde boy smiling gummily before me and warned myself not to sneer back, “Listen, kid: you and me? We’re basically strangers.” He was so earnest and I am far too decent to have said such a thing, but I did think it and I also thought about why nobody else thought this insta-family thing was strange.
That blonde boy is now a darker-blonde man and I haven’t considered him my stepbrother for eons. He is my brother. I got him when he was almost six. He’d torture and bury anyone who tried to hurt me. He is smart and funny and loyal and very affectionate. He is one of the best presents I’ve ever received.
For a very long time, though, I did refer to my stepsisters as “my stepsisters” and it would freak me out when I’d hear them say about me, “This is my sister,” because I wasn’t their sister and I would fume when I heard my mother tell someone, “I have four daughters and one son,” because, um, no you don’t. You have two daughters and two stepdaughters and one stepson and maybe it would take longer to say that and it might require some explanations or a flowchart or two, but let’s keep things authentic, no?
But even my reaction paled when it came to the day my sister Leigh called my mother at work and told her secretary, “This is her daughter,” and the secretary responded, “Amy?” After collecting her brain matter from the walls and sticking it back inside her head, my sister called me to vent.
“Am I wrong to be annoyed?” she asked.
“Probably,” I answered. “But I’d be fucking furious too.”
It’s hard in a family to be aware of precisely when things shift. There have been family ski trips where we all spent a lot of time together on chair lifts and facedown in the snow. There have been holidays and random Sunday barbeques at our parents’ house. But I think what finally brought us together like a real family is that process of learning about one another and rooting for one another and consoling one another and forging individual relationships.
I now consider both Amy and Paula to be my sisters. They might have gotten to that place more quickly than I did, but I arrived – and I brought snacks. They’re very different from one another but still very much the same. I couldn’t tell their voices apart over the phone until about five years ago. They are both very loud, especially when they get excited. Both of their laughs boom through a room just like their father’s laugh. On paper it doesn’t really make sense, but Amy is the more sensitive one and, though Paula is affectionate too, Amy literally touches you when she speaks. She’s the kind of businesswoman I’d describe as shrewd and brave and she’s flown to places like Singapore to lead conferences as a world expert in her field, but I’m just as impressed by how well she cooks. Her brussel sprouts are literally the only brussel sprouts I’ve ever eaten without having to be threated that I would be punished and not be allowed to watch Little House on the Prairie.
Amy used to have a giant bulldog named Butkus and he was the only dog Wookie has ever kind of liked, in that she would co-exist in a room with him or run around the pool in circles alongside him whenever I’d do a dive. Then again, there’s a good chance that eight-pound-four-ounce Wookie was just in shock and knew immediately it was best to make this large thing her ally. Butkus passed away a bunch of years ago now, and my niece Mackenzie, who never knew that dog, lavishes love and attention on Wookie whenever she sees her. Recently – and beyond randomly – I got a call from Amy because Mackenzie was sitting in the backseat of the car and she told her mother kind of out of nowhere that Wookie is a very nice dog and that she’s also a Wisdom Puppy and that must be why I’d chosen her.
“What’s a Wisdom Puppy?” I asked. “Is it a character on some show?”
“No,” Amy whispered back, “there’s no such thing as a Wisdom Puppy. That’s why it’s so bizarre.”
Besides my best friend, Amy and Mackenzie are the only ones who prefer my dog hairless. Personally, I think her summer hairdo makes her look like she’s been turned inside out, but upon gathering my shorn dog at the groomer last week, I took a picture and sent it to Amy.
“Tell Mackenzie the Wisdom Puppy is bald,” I wrote.
As for Paula, she’s not exactly an animal person, which is a nice way of saying that she doesn’t like dogs and doesn’t want to have to pet something that’s going to try to lick her right after it just licked itself. Still, I walked into the den once and found her sitting with my dog on the sofa.
“Wookie,” she declared, “you are my favorite animal in the entire animal kingdom.” And Wookie, seeming to understand the magnitude of such a statement, nuzzled up beside Paula but kept her tongue to herself.
Paula has somehow overnight transformed herself into the world’s greatest baker and cookie decorator. The girl’s got skills – and if there’s one thing I’m an expert on, it’s knowing which cookie looks the best. I tell her frequently that she and Leigh should start a business where Leigh plans a kid’s birthday party and Paula makes the favors, but it’s never going to happen since they live many states away. Paula’s more of a phone person than I am and we don’t talk all the time, but we do check in and call to tell each other funny stories or to mull over something crazy one of our parents recently did. It’s comforting sometimes for someone who knows everyone involved to assure you that you’re the normal one in a given scenario.
My original family was exceedingly small. I have some relatives in California and an aunt in Manhattan and that’s about it. If we had a reunion, we could all fit around one square table. But something I’ve found quite wonderful is how close my actual family and my inherited family have gotten. I’ve always called my aunt “Aunt Hopey.” Her middle name is Hope and I guess my sister started calling her that when she first learned to speak and the name stuck, but what I love is that now Amy, Paula, and Devin call her “Aunt Hopey” too – and she answers to it. It’s just how things are, I guess. I’m not around her much, but I call their aunt “Aunt Ellie” too, and I think that there’s something sweet about how this weird family tree has reorganized its roots and finally blossomed.
Look, it’s not a perfect dynamic. Besides my brother who was so young, we all came together after our personalities were already formed and we’re all really different from one another. Sometimes a few of us are closer than others, but there’s a love and a loyalty there now between all of us that really only exists within a family and I wish the evolved me could tell the once-struggling me to go ahead and try to lighten up because those strangers would eventually turn into some of the people that I value the most.