The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

When Family is Unfamiliar

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If life goes along as it should, there is a day when you are an adult when you become the proud owner of a whole new life.  For most people, it happens the day you move out of your parent’s home.   For me, I left my childhood, my life as I knew it, the day I discovered my mother had become the proud owner a whole new life.

I didn’t see it coming, though perhaps I should have.  As far as I knew, we were the family that everyone wanted to be.  Others would seek the advice of my parents.  Young couples would spend hours next to each other on our living room couch, as if just being in our home they’d gain by osmosis the wisdom of an established family.

Then my mother started taking vacations more frequently.  We weren’t really a family that vacationed.  An occasional camping trip was about as exotic as it got and we loved it.  But my mother’s recent destinations had included places like Hawaii or Arizona.  I remember we were a bit jealous of her trips because they took away from us my mother, her time, her attention, money I didn’t know we had.

Resources were limited for us, a young family of six with four children aged 4, 8, 10 and 12.  I didn’t feel poor, but I do remember at school recognizing that we were a sack lunch family.  That’s how you knew where your family stood on the social ladder in grade school.  There were families like ours who had bags, usually of the brown paper variety, packed with a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. When pickings were slimmer at home, our sandwiches were found stuffed at the bottom of the plastic bag that had previously been inhabited by the last slices of a loaf of bread.  And in those slim times, there wasn’t that apple.  Then there were families whose children had lunch boxes, maybe even one with with GI Joe or Strawberry Shortcake imprinted on the front, stuffed with fruit roll-ups, crackers with cheese, juice boxes; the type of lunch box fillings you bought already prepackaged and in individualized servings at a store, not the kind of stuff you picked up in a box from a government building. But ultimately, the thing I was most jealous about were the notes some kids got in their lunch.  They’d pull out their Twinkie and find a handwritten message from their mom taped to the bottom.  They’d pretend to be embarrassed but I knew that paper meant they were special to someone.

So when my mom started coming back with souvenirs from warm climates, I guess I should have known that something had changed.  I was told that mom needed a break and so I suppose what I was expecting was that what we were missing, the time and attention and money she took to travel, would eventually come back to us in the form of a rested mom, recharged and laden with treasures like the fancy, little hotel soaps to dole out to us. But once she left she never really did come back.

The day I visited her new apartment there was no denying it.  I think we were told we’d be seeing our mom after an unexplained absence of multiple months, but I don’t know if I realized that we’d be walking into a whole new life.  That new life was staring me in the face in the form of my new baby brother, lying there on the couch with his scrunchy face peeking out of that pastel blanket in which he was swaddled.  I had known my mom was pregnant, but I didn’t know he had been born.  I think my mom had meant to present him to me as a happy surprise.  I walked in the door and because I was the kind of kid who didn’t like to disappoint, I gave her the reaction she wanted: A smile and a surprised intake of breath, delight at this new life in front of me.

Twenty years later, when I take inventory of that memory I see the reality of what my not quite 13 year-old brain was processing.  This tiny little baby, not yet old enough to have to be able to roll off on his own, perched on that brand new, white, leather couch in that one bedroom apartment.  My mom had not planned for eight eager, young, maybe even grungy, hands to overrun that space and interact for any length of time with that vulnerable baby lying on the couch.  Conspicuously missing were any mementos from our life together- framed photographs or school art projects representing us other children.  That precious baby, that pure white couch, that tiny apartment: My mom’s new home was not planned to share with the four active, messy children that she already had.

In that moment, I was standing in the doorway taking in my mom’s new life but I was also standing at the precipice of the end of my life as I knew it.  What for her was the fresh pastel swaddle, spotless, bright space of her new life was the no-room-for-you, things-will-never-be-the-same, dark, formless void of my new life.  And standing to the side was my mom, with the pride of a new mother looking at that other precious life, who had gone out and carefully feathered her little nest for her baby boy but who hadn’t done anything to make that gaping void any less empty for me.  Nothing had been put in place to make that jump any safer or any less scary.  I was going to have to fend for myself.  And my three younger siblings were coming, too.  But none of us knew where we were, let alone where we were going. All we knew was that there was nothing familiar about where we were.  Nothing family-ar at all.

Was there a particular moment you realized you were on your own?  That your childhood had ended?

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