Wherein Our Heroine, as Usual, Mulls Over a Definition.

When I was a child, I had a fairly typical child's view of family. Crayola stick-figure people, proudly standing in front of an improbably-colored house. Mommy, Daddy, Me. There was a vague notion that another small stick-person might come to join us one day. It happened to other people, after all, it might well happen to us. But for the time being, MommyDaddyMe was a fixed constellation, a part of a larger system that also contained star-clusters like GrammyGrampa, and UncleAuntCousin.

I remember one kid in my first grade class whose parents were divorced. It was so outside my six-year experience that it was frightening, an unknown condition that was potentially contagious. As time went on, of course, it happened more and more often as the mid-70's wound down into the late 70's and all through the 80's. Other people's constellations were more like volatile molecules, whizzing around and bouncing off of one another. MommyDaddyMe, though, we continued. We mostly stood still like one of those time-lapse movies where people flow like a spastic river around a statue or monument. Everything else changes. The monument endures.

I like to say that my life turned into an after-school special when I was 26. It used to be a way to deflect unwanted sympathy - make people laugh so they don't feel they have to try to figure out how to make it better. Now it's just something I say: an old, tired laugh-line I have a hard time letting go of. The fact was, the monument was gone, and its component elements entered the shifting, passing flow.

Entering the speedy world of the molecule after spending years in the still, changeless silence of space can bring on some sharp shocks. About 25 years after I had stopped wondering about the possibility of another little stick-figure, I suddenly had a stepbrother, five years my junior. This does strange things to the part of your brain that controls definitions. People ask me now if I have any siblings and my automatic answer is still, "No." And then, "Well, sort of." After all, it's pretty silly to call Brian "My father's second wife's son" when there's a perfectly good three-syllable word for his place in my constellation. At the same time, using the bare term "stepbrother" seems disingenuous. We didn't grow up together - I didn't get to lord it over him until he got bigger than me (I could say he's my made-to-order big little brother). There's something strange about calling someone your "brother" when you've never lived in the same household. Yet anything else is inefficient.

Whatever I call him, though, I am fond of him. We have a quirky, funny sort of friendship that I have grown to value. I look forward to the years ahead, when perhaps the word stepbrother will come without the air quotes. He comes from his home in Florida to visit today, and I am looking forward to it.

Posted: Friday - August 20, 2004 at 07:51 AM         | |