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Choosing Our Family

By Candy Schulman

unnamed-1The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. -Richard Bach

In middle school my daughter was given an assignment to draw a family tree, a fun way to strengthen vocabulary in her French class. She had a pet hamster at the time, and her family tree renderings turned out to be furry and nocturnal, with tails. So was her best friend Nicki’s. No one was surprised. Each of our families were imploding, and our human family structures had shattered irrevocably. At the time, hamsters provided more family support than human relatives.

Madelyn met Nicki as an infant in a Mommy and Me class. We lived a few blocks away, and our families became instant friends, babysitters, weekend travelers. We bought matching outfits for the girls, and they slept over each other’s houses more than they stayed at home. They grew up with a unique friendship bond—more like sisters, without the sibling rivalry. When Nicki’s sister Hannah was born, Madelyn became a big sister too.

Every December we took off in different directions: Nicki’s family to celebrate Christmas in Ohio, ours for Chanukah in California. We reconvened every New Year’s, sharing a bottle of Champagne at midnight long after the girls had gone to sleep, snuggling next to each other in the same bed.

Madelyn was an only child and often asked to have a brother (never a sister). Later she changed her wish from “sibling” to “puppy.” But when she saw other friends who shared weekly Sunday dinners with nearby family members, she knew something larger than a puppy was missing in her life.

“Nicki and Hannah are our family,” I told her, even though she already knew. “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. We are more fortunate than many: we’ve picked friends who have become our family.”

Once when Madelyn became dehydrated and my husband was away on business, I alone had to do everything from getting Madelyn to the hospital to excessive worrying. In my haste, I grabbed the duplicate stuffed Golden Retriever she slept with every night (in case we ever lost the original). When the nurse was setting up a cot for me to sleep next to her hospital bed, I realized the real puppy was home. IV fluids had begun to work, and Madelyn was more aware than the nearly comatose five-year-old in the ER. She sobbed, begging for the only puppy who could coast her into dreamland.

I couldn’t call my family in California for help. So Nicki’s mother rushed over to the hospital on a frigid January night, fetched my house keys, went to pick up Puppy, ran back to the hospital, and generated the first smile Madelyn’s face since she’d gotten a bad case of flu five days ago.

That’s true friendship. That’s family. How many parents are lucky enough to have both?

Years later both of our DNA families began to splinter. Coincidentally, we were both going through disagreements with siblings about our mothers’ wills. Vicious arguments. Law suits. Tears. Families torn apart.

Nicki’s parents invited us out to dinner—without the kids. Before the entrees arrived, they asked if we’d be willing to be the legal guardian of both girls. “It isn’t possible with members of our family anymore,” they said. “And besides, you’re our family now.”

We were honored, yet apprehensive of the large responsibility. Of course we said yes. Who can turn down the needs of true family? And we loved Nicki and Hannah as much, if not more, than blood relatives.

A year later my sister and I were embroiled in a lawsuit over our mother’s will. She’d left me her jewelry, knowing I made less money than my sister did. And I’d been her main caretaker for the last five years of her life. My sister and I had never been close, and even though she lived near our mother, I was the one who spent every Chanukah and birthday with Mom when she was bedridden with dementia, while my sister was gallivanting around Hawaii with her boyfriend

Now we were adversaries in court, a heartbreaking process where my sister told lies about me to the judge and to my nieces and nephews. After our suit was over, I knew I’d never talk to her again.

It was my turn to invite Nicki’s parents out to dinner. They said yes, just as we had. That night I downloaded a legal document from the Internet, notarizing it the next day. My daughter had a new guardian until she’d turn eighteen.

Each year as Chanukah and Christmas nears, I shop for gifts for Nicki and Hannah the way I used to enjoy giving personalized presents to my sister’s family. Together we light the menorah. Madelyn never did get her own puppy, but she’s been crowned guardian aunt to Duke, Nicki’s English bulldog. She walks him when they’re away on vacation. She loves him as if he’s her family—even though he drools and snores.

We have an extended family too. Each year we spend Thanksgiving with Jill, whose son is Madelyn’s age. Last year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we cooked for a friend of Madelyn’s since preschool, whose Jewish father now lives in another state and whose mother was raised Catholic. Passover is always with Nicki, where the two girls have searched together for the hidden matzo. Sometimes we have holiday dinners with friends who don’t have children. John, a lifelong friend of my husband’s, is known in our house as “Uncle Johnny,” always interested in hearing details about Madelyn’s soccer games and knowing that she loves dark chocolate whenever he brings her a bakery treat.

Creating a family for our only child, we replaced the families we’ve lost through needless disagreements, but the grief for their absence is always there. No one can ever predict the surprising twists that can cause great distances, beyond geography, among family members. You do what you must to compensate for loss. Our family and holiday gatherings don’t look like they did when I was a child, but there is always plenty of laughter and hugs. Sure we have the occasional disagreement—but after all, we’re family.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents,,, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies.  She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

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