Weekly Visits

The old proverb (as well as the Clintons) say, “It takes a village.” I take old proverbs seriously (the Clintons, not so much), and here is just one example.

During the first year we were together, my kids and I had the great good fortune to enjoy regular weekly visits from not one, not two, but three of our family aunts and uncles. Each person had a regular night. The boys knew pretty much by heart whether the day was going to be an Aunt Leigh night (I think those were Wednesdays), an Uncle Jim night (Thursdays?), or an Uncle Herman night (Tuesdays). Except for the occasional illness or out-of-town vacation, these visits were as regular as clockwork. As you might imagine, they were “treats” that the kids looked forward to week by week—almost as much as dad did.

Each visit had its own flavor. Uncle Herman was the playmate, spending most of his time on the floor with the boys while dad was freed up to cook, work, and clean. While I’ve never exactly embraced cooking, working, or cleaning, it was certainly easier to do when the kids were trying to put someone else in a headlock for a change.

Uncle Jim divided his time between kid play—“the claw” was a regular feature, much to my kids delight (the boys are now 19 and 17, and we see Uncle Jim once, maybe twice a year; and if the four of us are in the car and I’m driving, I still have to tell them to knock it off with all that “claw”nonsense)—and grown-up talk with dad, providing badly needed conversation that didn’t include the words “Spongebob” or “time out” or “phonics.”

And Aunt Leigh … well, basically, Aunt Leigh took over, cooking, cleaning, mending, probably getting some teeth brushed and hair combed in there as well. When Aunt Leigh was in charge, dad could read the paper or take a nap.

Lesson learned: For every uncle in the picture, make sure you have a few aunts.

As if it had been prearranged, after almost exactly a year the visits pretty much ended across the board. Uncle Herman had a new guy and soon moved to Santa Cruz. Uncle Jim took a job in Boise (welcome back to California, Jim! Long overdue!). And Aunt Leigh and not-yet-uncle Marty bought a house that required as much time and energy as any kid—at least until she had two of her own.

But the imprint of that early contact is indelible. The boys see Aunt Leigh only occasionally, Uncle Jim less often, and Uncle Herman not at all. But all it takes is a mention and they can go on with favorite moments, “remember when …” stories, and general good vibes in connection with the name.

We have had many other “regular visitors” who either were (Max, Uncles Cedric and Ray), or became (Christina) family, but I have to give a special shout-out to those early pioneers, who stepped in during the period when this whole “family” concept was a bit of a wild card. Their presence helped create the needed sense of security and smooth down some of the rough edges. All of us, especially dad, were in better moods and on best behavior with other grown folks around—and I will always be grateful for what they brought to the table (which sometimes included pork chops  Thanks, Leigh!).

Next: East Coast

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Other NT Families

Through some combination of chance, coincidence, and “that makes perfect sense,” a large portion of our family circle through the years has included a variety of nontraditional (NT) families. It’s almost as though kids from alternate family structures have a sixth sense and can feel each other out. I would call it the NT-family-kid version of gaydar, except my gaydar is so exceptionally lousy (read: always wrong) that I’m not sure such a thing exists.

Whatever the cause, my kids have certainly bonded with a proportionately large number of kids from “like” environments to our own. As examples, I will pick two of each kid’s best friends over the years

Daveon’s first best friend when he moved to Oakland was Quinn. The first day Daveon went to elementary school at ASCEND, Quinn took Daveon under his wing and showed him the ropes. As Quinn later put it, “I remembered what it was like to be the new kid at the school, and I didn’t want Daveon to have to go through that.” (Yes, Quinn was and is a sweetheart.) Daveon and Quinn were pretty inseparable during the first few ASCEND years, and though their paths later moved apart, they still see each other a couple of times a year and remain close.

Quinn’s mother is Tammy. His grandmother, Tammy’s mother, is Esther. Quinn lives with Esther and her husband, Dave. Tammy’s father was Esther’s first husband—Dave is husband number two. Quinn considers Esther and Dave his parents. Tammy lives around the corner and they see each other pretty much every day.

So what, exactly, is a traditional family again?

Fast-forward a few years: In high school, Daveon’s first best friend was Michael. Like Daveon, Michael ran cross-country and track. Also like Daveon, Michael is adopted. His parents, Mike and Melinda, adopted Michael from birth. Michael’s biological parents are in the area and he sees them once in a while. Melinda’s sister also has an adopted son, who is her (the sister’s) biological nephew. That nephew/son, Ali, went to the same high school as Michael and Daveon (at the time) and was also a cross-country/track runner. So you had Michael, Ali, and Daveon, as the adopted runner brotherhood.

For what it’s worth, Quinn is mixed-race Mexican, Michael is mixed-race Latino, and Ali is black. What is the saying about like attracting like?

Meanwhile, Mark’s best buddy in elementary school was Siddhartha, and his best buddy in middle school was Carmen. Siddhartha’s birth parents are divorced (or split up—I’m not sure they were ever married), and each has remarried and has had a second child. So Siddhartha splits his time between his birth mom, step dad, and little brother, and his birth dad, step mom, and other little brother. Carmen, meanwhile, has it pretty simple: She is the adopted Chinese daughter of a single white mom, Becky. She also plays a mean ragtime piano. (Shameless plug: I give Carmen a shout-out in the ragtime post on my other blog.)

I could go on (and on, and on), but you get the point. I’m pretty sure that in none of their classes did either of my kids stand up and say, “Hi. I’m adopted and part of a cross-racial, single-parent family. Anyone here can relate and want to be friends?” It just … happens.

Even white, WASP, originally from Michigan Aunt Leigh has two mixed race boys by her Chinese-American partner, Uncle Marty. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I can think of one “birth mom + birth dad + kids all of the same race under one roof” family in our circle. Maybe it’s something in the water, maybe it’s a sign of the times. Or maybe it’s time to reexamine our sense of normal.

Next: Weekly Visits

Coaches, Mentors, and Other Parental Stand-Ins

For the next section of posts, I go beyond our tiny four walls and take a look at the many people and organizations who have—for better and worse—played a part in our family story.

To kick things off …

Some of the most fun—and in case you’re wondering, I am being sarcastic—you will ever have as a parent is dealing with the many flavors of folks who take on pseudo-parental roles with your children. This group includes babysitters, coaches, counselors, aunts and uncles, “aunts” and “uncles,” and many others. I would generally not include teachers in this category, since they play a pretty specific role in most kids’ lives. But depending on the teacher/student relationship, they could easily qualify as well.

Some of these parental stand-ins will become your child’s best friends; some will become yours. In a perfect world, at least one or two of them fall into both categories. This is rare—the job description is so different between the two.

Overall, the boys have had some pretty wonderful folks guiding their athletic, musical, and personal pursuits. Because many of these folks have become long-term, integral members of our family life, they will get separate mention in other posts. Here I present a few episodes that stand out. These were maybe not so wonderful—some comical, some a bit less so:

  • We start with the babysitter who took the kids to the corner store to buy, I kid you not, ice cream, candy, cookies, and soda—all in the same afternoon. And I don’t mean one kid got two of those things and one got two others—each kid happily* recounted the story of how he scarfed down ice cream, candy, cookies, and soda, in roughly a 4-hour window. Said babysitter also turned our kitchen into a science lab to make play-dough creations that involved just about every pot and pan we owned, as well as a fair amount of the sugar, salt, flour, food colorings, and other assorted ingredients. All well and good, except this young person apparently assumed our science lab came with a custodian, since all of the above-mentioned items were left out, and dirty, and often dripping, spilled, dusting, or otherwise splattered all over the place. (* Of course they were happy. The sugar high lasted three days.)
  • On a more serious note, there was the director of a boys’ mentoring program who called Daveon a “sissy.” And then, when we met, denied it. Daveon may have his flaws, but when we comes crying down the hall and crawls into my lap—in school, in front of everyone—I’m pretty much going to believe whatever he says is wrong. During the meeting, the program director also said, “You [Joe] are Daveon’s father, and I’m his father, too.” Whoa there, cowboy. I can’t exactly remember the last time you fed the kid, or took him to the emergency room in the middle of the night, or even cleaned up his baby-sitter’s play-dough kitchen mess. But if you ever want to take on any of those tasks, please call me.
  • And finally, the only issue I ever had at the middle school I otherwise loved: The coach who insisted Mark really, really wanted to play basketball, and couldn’t we work something out? Mark was heavily into skating at the time, and doing dual sports was not an option—we’d been there, done that, and unless your idea of a good time is a kid who’s exhausted all the time, stressed because there isn’t enough time to get school work done, and falling apart at home on a regular basis, this wasn’t an experience I was eager to repeat. So Mark, as he did in the past, had to choose, and he chose to continue skating. The coach actually got the school principal involved, who emailed me to see if there was some way that we could work with Mark’s “great interest.” Of course there was: Mark could choose basketball over skating. He did not. The punch line, of course, is that the first thing Mark said to me was, “I don’t really want to do basketball anyway. The coach just keeps pressuring me.” Because, you know, nothing speaks to “great interest” like the push from otherwise caring adults.

Next: Other NT Families