Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A 14-Year-Old Reflects on her Unconventional Family

Thanksgiving's Legal Guardian Angel

A Memoir by Julie Byrnes, age 14

Last Thanksgiving, my 8th grade teacher asked us to make a paper tree for the holiday that contained all the things we were thankful for. Everyone in this class wrote down "family," referring to two loving, reliable people, biologically related to them. I have always longed for this type of bond. Moved from one guardian to the next, it was hard to decipher who my family really was. The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines a family as a group of persons of common ancestry. So in my case, "family" is a group of people who I see once a year, if at all.

My birth mother died when I was just four years old and I immediately moved in with my father who was living away from us at the time. Many family members--four uncles and one aunt--knew he was unfit to parent me at the time, but still, I stayed with him for three years until Marcella Dotan, my mother’s former neighbor, found it in her heart to let me into her home. I remember telling her, at such a young age, about the dead look my father so often had on his face, and how he would lock himself in the bathroom for long periods of time. I didn’t know what this all meant, not even when my friends’ mother found needles in the bathroom sink. Marcella knew what was going on, and that I had nowhere to go. She took me in finally because, as she put it, “I had known you were mine the second you were put into my arms when you were one day old.” I have lived with her ever since. My father has been clean for a couple of years now, we have repaired our relationship, and we work hard at trying to focus on the present. Yet I cannot forget the years of fear and loneliness.

So it was Marcella, rather than my countless relatives, who took me in, the child whom many thought would turn out “messed up.” What does this say about the significance of shared ancestry, or in other words, my "family"?

When I think of my family, I think of Marcella, my eighty year old fill-in mother who has not a drop of my blood in her body. As I fall to sleep, my head rests against her short, unnaturally blond hair. She walks, now slower every day, in cheap pants from one of those countless discount stores. Her sad blue eyes alert me whenever she is about to yell at me for something I cannot even remember doing. She insists on everything being orderly and painstakingly clean, while I don’t mind the mess. Often, I forget to throw away a gum wrapper or something like that, and she holds it in front of my face and yells. A stubborn 14-year-old, I yell back. With age, I become more rebellious, and with age, she becomes more sensitive. We fight more and more.

Yet, when we're not arguing, we talk about everything together. We used to walk and talk, traveling miles by foot, side by side. But now with her retiring legs, we walk a few blocks and then go home. I miss following her around Zabars, sampling cheeses, stopping at the section where they sold lox. Marcella would see the hungry look in my eyes and buy half a pound for breakfast the next day. The comfort of this routine made me giddy. Even now, she can still sing off key to “Sunrise, Sunset” and break into a smile as bright and mysterious as the moon. She hugs me before bed, and I lay at night pondering where I would be if something were to happen to this fragile, old woman, and before I know it, I am quietly crying in bed. I love Marcella with all my heart and I wonder how it can be that, under the common definition for a family, she does not fit.

Still, I've tried to fill the family void with people who are technically closer to the traditional definition. With one uncle in prison, and two others out of state, I am left with my step Uncle Vinnie and my Uncle Victor on the holidays.

The last Christmas I spent with Vinnie and his family, my dad and I arrived at a house full of people whose names I couldn't remember. I held on to my father’s elbow and made him swear not to leave me. I lost him, though, as we reached the throng of people hanging out by the piano. They jumped to their feet to greet us with fake smiles plastered to their faces. Once I finished answering the tiresome questions--"How's third grade going?" "... I'm in fifth..."--I looked for my dad in the midst of wealthy blonds.

I remained alone, across the room from my father, when it was time for unwrapping.

Accustomed to not receiving gifts from these people, I was well aware of the ritual that was about to take place. All the adults--and I--would sit on the leather couch or one of the various armchairs that formed a semi-circle around the room. Vinnie's grandchildren, ages three to six, would stand in a line waiting to receive their prizes. The adults gave expensive gifts to their nephews and nieces; Vinnie’s pile of gifts stood nearly as tall as him. I remember the hungry looks on the children's faces as they unwrapped their prizes, and how that Christmas Day glee lasted for about five seconds, before greed returned to their eyes. I also remember the pitying look all the adults would give me. Sometimes one would smile and comment on how nice my shirt was or something silly like that.

That year was the first time Vinnie called me to the living room with my dad carrying two wrapped gifts with my name on them. Apprehensively, I took them and began to unwrap the largest one first, very carefully. I was afraid to hope that I was included in their tradition of gift giving. I looked down to find a dirty and worn pink, fuzzy coat--possibly the ugliest article of clothing I had ever seen. My dad glanced over at me with more sarcasm than sincerity. I smiled and thanked Vinnie very much as I turned to the smaller gift. Alas, it was a wooden necklace with a yellow “99¢” price tag written on it in bold. Awkwardly, I thanked him and he went back to the room full of laughing children. My father began to laugh and said that the coat was probably from a second hand store. A wave of sadness swept over me and tears came to my eyes. No one here cared for me at all. I could see their eyes glaze over after asking me a question. Vinnie is practically an uncle. Why couldn't he make the slightest effort to make me not feel like an outsider? As I stared out the window at the age of ten, listening to the laughter in the background, I began to wonder how on earth I could possibly call these people family.

I am so thankful that that same year, a teacher of mine, Ms. Zweibel, invited Marcella and I to take part in a seder. As we arrived, Ms. Zweibel's family jumped to their feet to greet us with bear hugs and warm, lasting smiles. Throughout the night, they listened as I spoke about school, and actually responded. At the end, instead of searching for matzah, they sent me to find a hidden gift: an elegant, pink, handbag. I couldn't believe how thoughtful these people were; I felt happier than I had in a long time. After a delicious meal, I left with Marcella--a smile still on my face. I felt part of a family.

How can people say blood is thicker than water? I have never truly believed in this saying. The only truth to it is this: You are connected to relatives whether you like it or not.

That's why I love Thanksgiving. I spend the holiday each year with a third, different kind of family. Marcella, my father, and I sit around a large table at which I am only biologically related to my father and one other person: Uncle Victor. The three of us, along with Uncle Victor and his friends, share funny Thanksgiving stories as we wait for dinner. Victor decides we should give thanks, saying he's grateful that we're together. Marcella who sits on the other side of the table smiles at me, mouthing, “I love you.” Embarrassed, I smile and look away. My dad takes my hand under the table and squeezes it. And as these things occur, I realize one important thing. Maybe it doesn’t matter who your family is or who you put under this category. The important thing is that someone does love you and gives a damn if you are alive or dead. We spend our lives mingling with those with whom we share blood. But this doesn't mean that we start out loving them, or end up caring about them. My family consists of those who care for me through good and bad. Ancestry is irrelevant. We sit around this large oak table at Thanksgiving. When it is my turn to speak, I say I am thankful for my family...



Anonymous said...

What a poignant, powerful, and deep memoir. You know the true meaning of family and thanksgiving; you possess rare wisdom. Keep writing!

eunjuish said...

That was a awesome read! I thought it was a very insightful invitation into your exploration on your "Unconventional Family"! Thank you for letting me feel the affection that you have towards Marcella. I can also feel the great amount of thought and emotion you invested into your writing, and not to mention the grand bravery you had to share it.

Anonymous said...

Amazing work. I often feel the same way about my family.

Markella said...

This was a well written story. Your reflection of the word "family" had a much deeper meaning to it. I started off reading the first paragraph and found myself captivated by your story so I kept on reading .. Sadly, it is behaviors like these that show you the true colors of most people and how pretentious they really are. The truth is, you don't need people like that in your life, blood or no blood. All you need is to surround yourself with people who truly care for you and those people will always be very few. These events should be a lesson that will help you build strong character and eventually grow into the wonderful person you seem to be.