My family started out as an island. My parents grew up under less than idyllic circumstances that included poverty, physical and substance abuse, and perennial dysfunction. My father has likened the situation that he and my mother faced to trying to save a drowning swimmer that panics and pulls the would-be rescuer down under the water with them. With the future and promise of two young children in their hands, my parents decided that raising my brother, Scott, and I on a self imposed exile island was better than being mired in a dysfunctional family and fending off the negative forces that they knew would never end. So they packed up their red station wagon and left Los Angeles for the clean slate of Northern California.
My parents decided they would build a new extended "family". They didn't really know what a positive, functional family actually looked like, but they figured it was probably comprised of people with healthy habits, a strong work ethic and positive aspirations. Enter Don and J. They lived down the street from us and had two daughters about my age. Don and J became best friends with my parents, and their family became a big part of our lives. When my parents went to a party and Don and J watched Scott and I, they were the people who got the call from the school principal informing them that my brother was in a wee-bit of trouble. (I assure you that Scott is now a more-than-upstanding citizen.) When I got sick at school and my mom could not get off work to pick me up, J came to get me… and she cleaned up the vomit I repaid her with.
One day, my parents asked Scott and I how we would feel about them asking Don and J to be our "godparents". We were not a terribly religious family at the time, so this question had nothing to do with Confirmation or First Communion. Mom and dad did wish to establish in their will who would look after us in the unthinkable event that something happened to them and they weren't around to raise us. But the question was about more than that. At the heart of the real question was whether or not we wanted to formally establish Don and J, two people whom we had grown to love and admire, as permanent pillars in our lives?
For decades after that, every Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas was spent with our two families, squeezed together, around a table so bursting with plates of food that my own fell into my lap on more than one occasion. I didn't mind. The gravy and potatoes that oozed down my lap was a sign that my island was growing.
Don and J's daughters grew to be more like sisters than childhood friends to me. As we "children" got married and had families of our own, those dinners transitioned to the houses of in-laws, and our "family" dinners altogether became less frequent. I gained another loving mother and father in my in-laws. My island started to have well supported bridges to other wonderful places. My brother married, my brothers-in-law all married, and the tables got fuller with each passing year.
But the bond to my first "other" mother and father hasn't lessened. Don and J continued to check in on us, now as concerned about our spouses and our children as they had always been about us. Now, I meet J for hikes up Windy Hill to talk about adult-sized problems. When my dad and Don huddle together to discuss the 49ers game, I notice how silver their hair had gotten and how the twinkle in their eyes speaks volumes about the depth of their friendship.
As Mother's and Father's Day approach, I am grateful that I have two brave parents who left something known but not healthy and headed into the unknown with the will to make it good. I appreciate that they had the wisdom to be intentional about building a new support system from scratch. I am thankful for my "other" mother and fatherthe ones we chose. I am grateful that they chose us back.