Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Furthest Step

When I was five, my mother remarried. Through this union I got a step-brother and a half-sister. We were told right off the bat that we were a family unit; that the steps and halves didn’t matter. We were so lucky to have siblings and that was all that counted. My new father became not my step-dad but also dad, or dad 2. The two of them worked to ensure equality among us all and I always accepted us as equal kids in the family standing. I assumed the extended family had adopted the same understanding and I grew up happy to have my larger family. It was nice having seconds of everyone. In my adolescence, I liked some of them better than some of my blood versions of the same. They were kind, funny and easy to be with. I considered myself lucky indeed.

As for my siblings, our unconditional acceptance of each other created confusion for others over the years. We would only admit to the sibling qualifiers if pressed:

“I was just visiting my dad.”

“I thought your sister said your dad passed away.”

“Well, yes and no, that was her dad. I still have mine.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Technically she’s my half-sister.”

We’d gloss over the explanations as if they were an ugly secret. “That stuff doesn’t matter to us,” we’d firmly state. “I mean, he’s my brother and that’s it. The step part doesn’t change anything.” It was as though we feared others expecting us to be somehow less devoted to each other if they knew we weren’t ‘real’ siblings, whatever that means.

Over the years there were some tensions with various family members who believed in the value of bloodlines. But as far as I knew those were long assuaged. We’ve been family for so long at this point, who remembers such petty distinctions?

By an accident of timing and venue availability, my sister and I both got married this summer. We chose very different wedding styles so on many levels there is no comparison. My sister’s wedding was an apple and mine an orange. Given that we’re siblings, however, and given there were only months between, it’s impossible not to take certain measurements. Theirs was held near much of their families making the guest list about five times the size of our remote destination celebration. Not for nothing but that also means five times the gifts which is petty and silly of me, I know, but when you’re trying to create a nice kitchen and your sister opens the appliance you most wanted from your registry it’s hard not to feel a little twinge.

The gift that knocked me sideways was nothing so extravagant. It was from a family member – one who was step to me but not her, not that I’d ever thought of them as anything but blood. As my sister opened various things from them, I didn’t really notice that the volume was far more than what I’d been given. It wasn’t until she pulled the tissue paper off a family heirloom that I felt a punch to my stomach. I’d been given no heirloom. Then the second punch: I wasn’t their blood and somehow that suddenly mattered. I quietly identified the period of the lovely piece for my sister who doesn’t share my interest in antiques and walked outside to breathe.

After all these years, really my whole life, of thinking we were all equal in the eyes of the family, it all suddenly seemed like a farce and I was the only one who hadn’t been in on the joke. I felt like at this adult age I’d only just realized there is no Santa Claus – and that everyone else had known since childhood. Embarrassment piled on the hurt. What a naive, dumb, accepting kid I’d been. The hurt I felt didn’t hit a just-married adult but a very vulnerable little kid part of me. I’d bought the family line I’d been brought up with: that we were all equally loved and accepted as far as family mattered. That was incredibly comforting to a kid who’d always felt like an outcast. As the last piece of tissue wrap fluttered to the floor, I was that kid again, on the outside looking in.

Then I wondered how far back did it go? Did the woman whose heirloom it was think of me as her own, like my sister, or merely as a child who happened to be in her orbit due to my parents’ marriage? Would she have wanted me to have something of hers or was that side of the family just carrying out what would have been her wishes? For most of my adolescence, I adored her as my favorite. She had a bright personality and she accepted me for who I was, tween warts and all. Or so I thought. This posthumous rejection flayed open a numbing gash. I cried for most of the plane ride home.

I want to be clear that I am not ungrateful for the gifts I received. They were generous and thoughtful all around. And I also want to be clear that I don’t begrudge my sister any of it. I would not want to take anything away from her in order to have it for myself. In many ways she’s had a much harder life that I have. She got dealt some rough cards. I can freely say that she deserves beautiful things more than I do and I am glad family and friends shared with her and made her feel special.

Of course it’s not about the stuff. It’s about the sentiments and beliefs that guided its giving. I know the family didn’t do it to hurt me and have no idea that I might have been hurt by the difference in their gifts. I’m sure they are completely justified in their actions: “she’s our blood” they’d likely shrug. I may be family, but not family family. I understand that to most people, most families, the actions of my step-family members are completely normal, acceptable and even expected. But I thought we were different from most families.

I grew up believing that family was who and what you said it was. I think that’s a nice idea and a good thing to aspire to. People may claim to accept and love without reservation but for most people – even some of the best people, in some small place in their hearts, the rules of who and how much still matter.

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