My Mom never intended to keep me sheltered from the 90s culture that surrounded my childhood. I believe she really enjoyed the culture she grew up in and her love of The Beatles, the Fifth Dimension, and The Lovin’ Spoonful flowed into our car radio every morning and the formation of my education on popular media. I knew much more about ABBA than Destiny’s Child and my first major celebrity crush was Davy Jones. Not the sea creature, the American/British popstar. He was the British import for NBC’s television show, The Monkees. He was also 47 years my senior.
I stayed up late to watch Nick-at-Night every evening. I truly believed, in my seven-year-old mind, that all of the shows were newly developed series. It wasn’t until my Mom informed me those shows were on when she was a kid that I first learned the inceptions of syndication. Out of every syndicated show they aired, The Brady Bunch always caught my attention.
I watched the Bradys faithful everyday on the VHS tapes I had my Mom record for me. I collected memorabilia, made my own Cindy Brady shirts, which I would later get made fun of at the playground about (In all defense of my bully, Cindy Brady shirts were a little much), and even took the time to memorize the birthdays of all the cast members. I was one dedicated little critter. If only I could be that dedicated to seemingly more important things now like schoolwork or finding a job. Due to my synthetic reality of perfect family modeled by the Bradys, I exchanged real life with the dream to live in the posh suburb style of the Brady’s house. I wanted 5 brothers and sisters who were all evenly paired with a member of the opposite sex. We would be each other’s best friends, our fights would never last longer than a 30-minute time slot, and our Dad would always give us short sound advice that would haunt our memories like sound fortune cookies for the rest of our existence.
Being adopted made my family different, but navigating those differences was a challenge each year. One of the hardest lessons to learn from a family you didn’t look like was finding a sense of belonging. The family are the first characters introduced in Act I, building the tone of our social identity, the frame in which we see ourselves in the world.
In elementary school, girls would bring in pictures of their mothers in 3rd grade to compare how much they looked like one another. I couldn’t do that. I had pictures of my mother, of course, but we did not share an ounce of DNA. There was a sense of connection my classmates were able to share with their families that did not need words, quality time, or any type of physical interaction. They were apart of a family, because they looked like one. My struggle to find my identity was something that would lead me into some of my darkest nights. Before we move forward in my identity, it is important that I give you the full context of my family. My own Bradys, so to speak.
My brother, Ricky, and I were six years apart, which meant he played the role of tough older brother, and I played the role of annoying kid sister who wanted to do everything he did. It wasn’t that I particularly looked up to my brother, but he was really funny, and I thought that was very cool. I wanted to be funny too, because I also wanted to be very cool. I was loud and obnoxious so everyone could enjoy my jokes (as much as I enjoyed them), but rarely did it work. Usually the moment ended with my brother telling me to go away. Time and time again after the rejection from my brother, I did just that.
I was always a quiet kid, I still am, because when I was quiet no one told me to go away. I retreated to the makeshift clubhouse of old paint cans and slabs of wood jammed into a storage shed in our basement that Ricky and I had made when we first moved into the house. There was a time, a very brief time, that we played in the clubhouse together. But as we got older, I played in the clubhouse and he just locked me inside of it.
Ricky moved out of the house when he was about 19. He pushed away from the highly legalistic church we were attending (something my family and I would do a few years later), and stayed with a group of friends he had met through some of our former neighbors. By the time I was 13, I was as close as you could get to being an only child while still having a sibling. I blamed myself for my brother leaving. I thought if I had been a better sister, if my family would have been bigger, or if we looked more like each other then maybe he would have stayed. Childhood in the clubhouse was lonely.
My Dad was the kind of dad that would come down and sit in the clubhouse. He faithfully sat on an old beanbag chair, while a photo of Britney Spears (The pre-Toxic years) hung over his head, and waited for a reply from me about how my day was going. My Dad was also a quiet man. He was, still – is, a patient man. I wanted nothing to do with him.
He studied mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech in the late 70s. He barely reached his senior year because of his excessive drinking habits, but when he sat in a bar a few weeks into his last semester, he realized he needed to change some things. He jumped to different churches before settling on the faith he was raised in. He met my Mom at school through prayer, which he is hesitant to encourage due to means of romanticizing the situation. Now, allow me to explain because it is a good story and not as hokey as you might think it is heading (But warning, it’s still pretty kitschy.) He was finishing up a paper in the school library when he started his conversation with God. “You let me know where she is and I’ll do my best to get there.” Let’s go with this phrase for how he ended his prayer (I may have taken a few creative liberties on that one) before ducking out to his next class across campus. Now, context, context is everything. Northern Michigan is very cold in the winter. Students are strapped up in similar looking brown or grey wool coats and matching hats, and other parts of the face that were not covered by the previously mentioned items were wrapped up in plaid scarves. (Very stylish, very 70s, very cold.) My Dad pulled his hat over his brown hair and blended into the sea of grey coats, he looked up the sidewalk and noticed a bright orange hat in the mix of winter. We all know where this is going.
After officially meeting in their service fraternity, and a handful of rejections from my Mom later, they were married two years after my Dad graduated. My Mom said she stayed with my Dad because of his gentle nature. He never yelled. I would yell, my Mom would yell. My Dad never neglected to calmly explain his thoughts and feelings in reaction to each situation. A patience, that I hated as a kid, but now desire in my young adult life. That posture of humility would have probably gotten me out of a few life binds.
My Mom is a juxtaposition of my father. She was a bit of a worrier. I’m not sure if you have ever lived with, know of, or you yourself are a worrier – but if you can relate in any form you completely understand the situation. She shoved vitamins and herbs at us to protect us from unheard diseases that she would read in her health magazines or hear about from her therapist. Her first reaction to any situation was whatever the worst possible scenario could be for that particular event. Most of the time it was death. Here’s an example:
“Mom, a few of us are going out to get milkshakes after school. Do you mind if I go?”
“That’s fine. But only if you text me when you get to the restaurant. Then text me when you’re back in the car. Don’t text me when you’re driving the car, because you’ll crash and die, but do communicate with me at some point. On your way home watch the roads because there was a light mist today so the roads might be slippery and you could slide through a light and end up in a ditch. If you do end up in a ditch know that we don’t have AAA so you’ll just have to call the police. Now if you’re knocked unconscious make sure you’re wearing a coat so that you don’t suffer from hypothermia while you’re waiting for help to arrive. Your insurance card is in your wallet in case there is an emergency at the hospital after they cart you away in an ambulance. Other than that, have fun.”
All of her worrying pushed me away, which is becoming the familial norm for my childhood. Now, before we get really sad about this chapter, allow me to reassure you that an upside is coming. As you know by now, I’m fairly long winded and cutting to the chase is not necessarily my primary means of communication. Plus, a good story isn’t worth telling if it is missing the full picture. (We've already mentioned my love of context.)
Being so emotionally removed from my family it was hard to say, “I love you” for a very long time. The words terrified me because they held the weight of commitment, trust, and patience that I was unable to enter into because I didn’t love where I was yet. By digging into the things that hurt, the parts that were abandoned, the scenes that were broken, I could move forward with healing and the ability to accept the love of my family. The only way to speak in love is to embrace the painful parts of the story and allow the wounds to mend into scars.
I often thought about the girls with the pictures of their moms. They defined family by pictures that fade by the time they reach their mid-life crises. My definition for family was defined by support rather than blood. It is the Dad that stays by the foot of your bed waiting for a response to how your school day was no matter how long it took for you to answer, or the Mom who claimed you the day she heard you were hers and never stopped caring about all the little things that make up who you are. It’s even the brother who bullies you as a kid until you grow up and would never allow anyone to break your heart. It’s the family that grows into three cool nephews and a new sister. They pick you up from countless airport visits, answer panicked phone calls, and let you tee off as many times as you need without counting them on your golf score. Whoever that looks like for you, whether you look like them or not, that is your family. Better than the Bradys. (A note to maybe revise the title of this chapter, I think I struck gold on that one.)