Now, track with me here. The woman my husband calls Mama Cornelia was married to his father a full decade before John was born. His brother, Davis, is 63—a patriotic, Bud-drinking southerner who retired from selling cars at age 58 and moved in to take care of their oddly joint “mama.” Earlier in his life, Dave lived with baby John and HIS biological mother (Mama Beth). John has a distinct early memory of sitting on 18-year-old Dave’s lap at three and “driving” a truck through Oklahoma. Having seen the two men together now—same older guy slope; same full, thick head of hair; same glinting eyes—I believe it.
The point of this is, I was touched. Also jealous. Our visit to Dardanelle, Arkansas, was warm and it felt more like extended family than anything I’d experienced—even despite the odd, random ties my husband and his people have. I come from a family that’s never had such haphazard connections. I have one sister with whom I have a close but dignified relationship. But that’s about it. We just aren’t the sitting-around-after-dinner-drinking-and-spinning-yarns types.
I had cousins growing up, my mother’s sister’s boys, but they were much older and—frankly—had zero interest in a relationship. I once went into a grocery store and waited behind a stocky man with dark, curly hair who was speaking vociferously into his phone. He had paid (never putting the phone down) and was out the door before I realized it was my cousin Don.
A few years ago, John and I took a trip out east to visit my father’s brother, the uncle I’d long thought I would love if I had the chance. And I did. But the better surprise was my baby cousin, Matt, the boy who was born when I was six. Here he was, all grown up! A fine man with a job and a wife and two babies of his own. We were friendly that night: dinner and some conversation, that’s all it was.
But somehow, and I cannot even remember how this happened, Matt’s wife Angie found me just as I was beginning this blog.
Since the day she first contacted me, however it was, she and I have corresponded an average of two or three times a week. She’s incisive and smart and wickedly funny. She adores my cousin—that long-ago baby—openly and with pure passion after eleven years. Talk about a forever marriage…
When we announced we were coming to Boston for my agent, Esmond Harmsworth’s, launch party for my novel, Angie invited us to stay. And despite the fact that I had met her in person exactly once, I accepted. Because somehow, this woman felt like my oldest friend. We debated dinner menus and hostess gifts. Then we showed up the other night—John and me and our nearly 18-year-old daughter—and had one of the first honest-to-God family experiences of my life.
I don’t share genes with Angie, and I have only that tenuous first-cousin biological connection with Matt. But it was the same as that evening in Dardanelle, with the ex-wife of my late father-in-law who called me “dear” and told me stories about the baby my husband once was. We sat around Matt and Angie’s table for hours, eating steaks and drinking wine.
Their two boys, ages 6 and 9, joined us for dinner then FELL on our daughter, who was delighted. She spent the rest of the evening dressed up in a safety vest and wig, playing Nerf gun wars with her much-younger cousins, emerging from time to time for a drink of water and to say, “I usually don’t like kids this age but yours, I love.”
At one point, toward the end of the evening, Matt asked about my older son, Andrew, who has autism.
“I’ve never met him,” Matt said. “But I think about him pretty much every day of my life. I just want him to be happy.”
There was a pause and my eyes filled with tears, because here’s the thing: I am absolutely sure that this is true. These people have been living half a continent away from me, carrying bits of my blood and big hunks of my life with them. They have been thinking and wishing and hoping good things for me and my children.
And I saw in that single late-night moment that they’ve been my family all along.