A year ago, I met the most wonderful man in the world, and we fell in love at first sight. No, really. I came home one day and there he was — sitting in my driveway, visiting friends and neighbors who live in my apartment building.
I’d previously loved hard and lost, to the extent of counting myself out of the game entirely, which makes me a cliche queen who found true love once I’d stopped looking.
My extraordinary boyfriend has a dazzling intellect and a flourishing beard, and he came with an unexpected blessing: a loving family.
I don’t automatically think of people as having families in their lives, which tells you all you need to know about my relationship with mine. I fluctuate between memories of my deceased parent’s abuse to respectful distance from my living one.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend spoke about his parents and younger sister so often that their closeness was clear from the jump. But in the beginning, it was still sort of theoretical to me.
Like, cool, you love your parents and they love each other, and you have regular family FaceTime calls with everyone in their respective states across the country? I guess, whatever. I knew that was a thing that happens in the world, but so is flamethrowing, which seemed equally accessible to me.
I popped my family FaceTime cherry quite unexpectedly. I was at my boyfriend’s apartment early in our relationship, and he told me he was about to talk with his parents. His voice was halting and he kind of stammered it out, which of course I interpreted as him trying to gently ask me to either leave before the call or stay hidden during it. I told him he didn’t have to worry; I could head out.
Surprised, he explained that the family had been requesting my presence on the FaceTime, and he was hoping I’d be into it but wasn’t sure, hence his hesitance.
Nowadays, between calls and texts, these people care about me and let me know it often. They want to be in contact with each other and with me, and each call ends with a heartfelt “love you!” whether it’s all of us chatting or one-on-one, which feels both natural and new.
Early in our relationship, I remember my boyfriend telling me that he’d just gotten off the phone with his father and that his dad had asked about how I was managing an issue I was having at the time. My gut reaction was: “TELL YOUR FATHER TO KEEP MY NAME OUT HIS MOUTH AND ALSO WHY ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT ME WHEN I’M NOT THERE???????”
That’s the deep, hurt response of someone wholly unaccustomed to active familial love. I had to tell myself: That’s parental care and concern, dummy! Get into it!
These people also want to see each other, even though that means significant travel. I first met the ’rents and little sis, plus her longtime boyfriend, last Christmas at an Airbnb’ed lake house in Kentucky where we all converged from our various locales.
Fam, I’m an emotional orphan from New York. It was like a very loving “Twilight Zone.”
Before that trip, I hadn’t had good Christmases. Holidays in general have been depressing beyond belief for as far back as I can remember, precisely because they seem to be so much about “celebrating” with “family” — two words I don’t put together.
I know I’m not alone on that, of course. Friendsgiving dinners have been clutch. But being thoroughly embraced by two lovely retirees who’ve been married for 40 years actually feels like family.
These are not perfect people, mind you — there’s no such thing. But there are moments of perfection, like cooking breakfast and finding out that my mother-in-law-ish and I make scrambled eggs the same way, and that we both save used dryer sheets to use for a bunch of other things. “Family bonding,” I believe it’s called. Didn’t have that on my life bingo card.
When the family is together, we watch movies and play games. I’ve performed on Broadway and have field training in violent crisis threat assessment, but I had NO experience in such everyday behaviors. I was shook!
But I figured it out, and we have so much fun and laugh till we’re hoarse. And every now and again I want to do an “Office” style Jim or Pam take directly to the camera with a sincere “WTF is going on here??” look.
And then there are the memories — not my memories, of course, but my boyfriend’s family has loads of pictures and home video documenting their lives, and the lives of extended family members who are no longer with us. They even recently did the thing where they had a bunch of old items digitized, and the levels of emotional warmth it wraps me in to look at the family’s old pictures and hear about their memories increase every time it happens.
There are the delights of hearing my boyfriend’s pre-pubescent soprano speaking voice in a childhood clip or seeing the same beautiful cheekbones I see on his mom’s face now in pictures of her from the last century. There’s the joy of sitting with the family as they trade stories about the people in the pictures, recalling different levels of details that dovetail until it’s just time to go to bed.
“I think that’s my uncle so-and-so. That’d be your great uncle.”
“Yes, from right after the war!”
“Or maybe he’s still overseas in this picture?”
Even his current best friend is in the digitized memorabilia; they’ve been besties since they were young. I’ve watched a few videos of them as kiddos making mockumentaries in the woods near their homes like adorable little weirdos — which tracks, because they both now work in audio and visual technology at levels so advanced that I, a person who’s logged cumulative years on TV sets and in control rooms, simply stand agape at the magnitude of their work.
My boyfriend is pushing 40 with a best friend since childhood and knows decades’ worth of history on the people he comes from, on both sides. That’s not only familial love I’ve never known, but also stability.
One of the earmarks of my particular brand of difficult childhood is not having pictures of it. We moved around a ton, and I’ve never lived in an environment with family pictures on the walls. I have pictures I’ve found over the years that I’ve patchwork-quilted into images of my youth, but a stable family upbringing yields results I never thought I’d get this close to.
The house where your parents live now includes what used to be your childhood bedroom that they’ve converted into a guest room? That’s shit I’ve only seen in movies, no lie. Growing up in a psychological thriller and falling into a romantic comedy, or maybe even — gasp! — a feel-good story, it can be easy to deprive yourself of present happiness by constantly looking over your shoulder for a spy with a gun or a tragic plot twist in the third act.
There’s the urge to always stay on the outside, to let the joy of these experiences of familial love also turn up the volume on my internal hater who wants me to feel shame at never having had my own, and to feel embarrassed at being so hideously old and having “firsts” that most people had as actual babies, like a happy Christmas morning or feeling motherly love.
Then there’s the garish trap of being the exaggerated emotional orphan, and also a native New Yawkuh in a family of tightknit Midwesterners. Comedy has been both my survival mechanism and my career, but I never want to be in such emotional distress that I slip into an Andrew Dice Clay burlesque at the dinner table, like: “Youse all actually like each other?! Suck my dick.”
(That said, the first time I heard an actual woodpecker in real life with them last year, I swear it sounded like gunshots.)
In the best version of things, my hard-candy coating finds a place in the family as their love builds an ever-growing home in my heart — like the time my sorta sis dropped a message in the family chat saying she was upset, that some lady who works in a clothing store sneered at her and made her feel like she didn’t belong.
I Googled the store name and her city, and was on the phone with the manager in two minutes. I gently explained that he had a raggedy slag working there who thinks her shit doesn’t stink and that anyone with opinions on my beautiful lil’ sis, with her vibrant green hair and impressive amount of magnificent tattoos, might also care to know she’s an art professor with TWO master’s degrees, so it makes total sense that she’s made herself a walking, talking work of art. I also observed that such retail snootiness is particularly embarrassing at his store’s modest price point, and the manager eventually welcomed her back with a hearty discount — because I, her sister, said so.
Until a year ago, I’d never had a sister. Or a true family.
But now that I do, do NOT fuck with them.