One of the first people I hugged on Christmas was my niece’s boyfriend. They started dating this year and since then I’ve been relentless about connecting with them: dragging them to family events, inviting them out on the boat and hosting them (twice!) at my home. My niece has been a fixture in my entire adult life, joining our family as the first grandchild just before Christmas. She’s my goddaughter and I love her to pieces, especially now that she’s emerging into adulthood. It turns out I like her boyfriend a lot, too. He’s upbeat and sincere, a younger quieter version of me.
Okay, they both got hugs.
When they announced after a few hours that they needed to leave to visit with his family I understood but was still disappointed. I pouted and tried to talk them out of it until they laughed, “Maybe we’ll stop by later.” It’s exactly the kind of thing you say to an annoying overbearing aunt, so when they came back later I was surprised and delighted. It was my mother-in-law who noticed he was wearing a new t-shirt and complimented him on it. I piled on asking whether it was a gift and which member of his family had given it to him. I was struck by his pause, his smile and his response.
Growing up, my family was simple. My parents were married for just over a year when I was born, the oldest child and only daughter. The family tree was easy to understand, everyone had a simple description and aunts and uncles and cousins arrived at the appointed holidays and reunions. The only thing that I ever had to explain was the fact that I had an extra grandma because my mom’s parents divorced when she was in college. And really no one ever gave you a hard time for having an extra grandparent — not when some kids didn’t have any. I won the kid lottery.
Things changed when I was in college. My parents announced that we were going to have a foreign exchange student come live with us for a year. I remember the family meetings describing what it would mean and setting expectations for how we would behave. We talked about whether we should request a boy or a girl. My brothers picked boy, my parents picked girl. I was the deciding vote and I decided a girl would be easier for my mom and simpler logistically. So, girl it was. A girl from Russia.
Once the decision was made I moved my stuff into the basement and prepared to join the family welcoming her into our home.
The summer she arrived was the same summer I met my husband. I had lots going on and was focused in my own quasi-adult world. The time flew by and before I knew it I was heading back to college. While my parents and brothers adapted to a new person in our family, I went back to my own self-absorbed life. While they pulled her into our traditions, the mall trips and family lunches on Saturday, the Sunday visits to grandma and grandpa’s, I was going to class and spending weekends with my boyfriend. I was so detached from the day-to-day that I barely noticed my family shifting over the line from simple to complicated.
I remember the moment when I realized things had changed. It was after I left to study in Australia when I got the weekly call from my mom. They had picked up a new puppy and named her Sasha, the Russian nickname for Alexandra. I was half-way around the world and heart-broken — how could they have made such an important decision without me?
And then it hit me: My family had gone from hosting a foreign exchange student to loving a second sister.
I was 20 years old when I went from being an only daughter to having a sister and it took me time to acknowledge that my family wasn’t simple anymore. I spent years explaining and extrapolating, telling people our long and complicated history. It took years of visits and weddings, cards and phone calls for me to get it. I knew I was finally over the hump when I got on a plane to go to New York City over the summer and just said, “I’m meeting my mom and sister for the weekend.” For Christmas she got me a necklace that says “sister”. I love it.
So, I understood when my niece’s boyfriend said it was complicated. I stood up, got a stylus for my iPad and sat back down next to him. We drew out his family tree and I saw the interwoven connections that at the surface defy the simple terms of brother, sister, mother, father, and cousin. We laughed as I asked questions about the people who make up the complex network of loves and lives that make him who he is. After we finished, I couldn’t help but agree. It is complicated.
But that’s family.