It’s All Relative is an exploration of all the different ways of being a family in the year 2019. With this in mind, we asked four writers to answer the question: What is a family? The answers will appear each morning.
Recently I moved into a new apartment and got the last of my furniture out of storage. After my dad retired, he worked on a textile project in which he basically hand-wove the upholstery for an armchair, using a technique called bargello. I was young and would help him sometimes, doing a few stitches here and there. It took him nine years to finish, after which he sent the dozen or so panels to an upholsterer, who put the panels onto the chair and sent it back. It’s a Queen Anne wingback armchair, and from a distance, with the bargello covering, it looks bright red. But up close you can see that it’s several shades of red melting into green and yellow, in geometric diamonds.
I have the chair now, and in some ways it feels like the place I go to be “with” my dad. It also feels like: All those years when he was alive felt so long at the time, but in retrospect they were nothing, and now I have a chair. I don’t mean that in a sad way.
A few weeks ago my brothers and our family friends were out at dinner. I call them my brothers, but technically they’re my ex-stepbrothers — my dad was married to their mom, my stepmother, for 12 years when we were growing up, but then our two parents split up around when we were going to college, and later each died, my stepmother in 2005 and my dad in 2009. Eventually the three of us kids — me, Nat, and Ben — all found our way to New York. In the restaurant, Nat mentioned details about my dad that I had forgotten. “Oh yeah, he totally had kidney stones,” he said. “You don’t remember?” I didn’t. “Yeah, he basically closed the door and stayed in the bedroom for three days while they passed.” Wow, that’s kind of insane? Awesome? Horrible? It felt as if my dad himself had poked his head into our conversation. Ben also reminded me of my dad’s gross cookie habit, which was that he’d eat a bunch of them late at night, out of his special drawer, standing up in the kitchen.
Sometimes I imagine going back in time to the day before my dad met my stepmother, and saying something like, “The woman you’re about to meet will have two sons, and they will be one of the best things that ever happens to me, so thank you.”
I guess I’ve learned what everyone else learns, which is that family is made up of bits and pieces that you lose and string back together, and then lose and string back together, and you never know what it’s going to look like, but you have a lot of choice in it. A lot of family is given to you, but a lot of family you can choose, by holding on and being careful.
My dad’s chair feels like a piece of him, and when I sit in it, it feels like a piece of me. All these pieces of us hanging around, and we can string together our families. I still hope to get married, to have children someday. To be part of one of those families that lives full-time in the same house.
Sometimes I worry about being left behind, since I’m not related to my brothers by blood. But then I think, “You know what? It’s too late now. They’re stuck with me.” There’s something about the weight of years that feels as if it can’t be undone. I know it can, but the older I get, the more I realize that you can’t go back and grow up with other people.