October rolled through bringing us our beloved pumpkin-spice lattes as well as the roller coaster ride we call the holiday season. The plastic jack-o-lanterns that so recently cluttered store shelves have already been replaced by pilgrim hats and paper popup turkeys. Soon these will be cast aside to make room for creches and menorahs. With each occasion comes the corresponding family gatherings. This onslaught of festivities can be trying for even the lucky few among us who have relatively normal families. For the rest of us, those whose family portraits look more like they were painted by Picasso than Rockwell, this time of year can be complex, to say the least.
While many people juggle family responsibilities over the holidays, arriving at compromises like This year it’s your parents for Thanksgiving and mine for Christmas, some of us face more complicated questions. I’m still trying to figure out with whom I should coordinate calendars. My family might be best conceptualized as the Picasso painting if you take LSD before looking at it. There are parents and stepparents, siblings, half-siblings, and stepsiblings. At this point, I don’t even consider all the cousins and such. I lack the nimbleness of mind to deal with them.
When I open my organizer to figure out how I’ll divvy up my vacation days, I flash back to an afternoon a few years ago when the following note appeared in my social media messages: “Is this the Kait Leonard who is the daughter of William Leonard? If so, he abandoned me too, and I’ve been trying for most of my life to find you.” Ah, family.
I am indeed that Kait Leonard, and the complete stranger writing to me is my half-sister, Beth. I grappled with whether or not to respond. What did she want? What did I want? Why was she contacting me now? I imagined she might need money, or maybe a kidney. I think the thing that bothered me most about hearing from this woman, my sister, was that we were connected through our biological father, someone I had dismissed decades earlier from my thoughts. I wasn’t sure I wanted to open any door that led to him.
Interestingly, I don’t remember exactly how I answered the message, but I did. In fact, I learned that Beth would be coming to Los Angeles for a work project. We arranged to meet for dinner.
At the restaurant, we did the obligatory hug, made small talk and ordered food that we didn’t want, and then the inevitable happened. We talked about the man who had brought us together. What slowly became clear to me was that while we shared DNA, we certainly did not share the same father.
The parent Beth described tried to be a part of her life. He wrote to her and called, but her mother blocked the messages from getting through. He had been a well-meaning guy, trying to do the right thing by his daughter.
When I was 16-years old, my version of this father appeared on my parents’ doorstep. I remember feeling fear and hope during that meeting. Both of these would fade over our next few interactions, and then he would blow out of town. I listened to the same stories Beth had heard. He claimed to have attempted to call me throughout my childhood, but alas, my family blocked his efforts. He had sent birthday and Christmas cards, and would have loved nothing more than to hear from me during the holidays. I knew none of this was true. I didn’t know him, but I knew my actual family quite well.
And there is the concept I find so difficult to pin down – Actual Family.
Since meeting my sister, William Leonard has died. Neither Beth nor I attended the funeral. I can’t speak for my her, but this man was not my actual family. It seems the people on his end of things felt the same about Beth and me. Our names did not appear, nor did our children’s, in the obituary that listed his surviving family. I think this hurt my sister. I didn’t care. We both moved on.
Beth and I have continued to communicate, though not often and never again in person. We live on opposite coasts, but I’m not sure the land between us is what keeps us apart. My sister and I do not have the anchor of shared history to stabilize us. We don’t have common holiday traditions. Still, we have not let go of the idea of being sisters.
I sent Beth a message recently and brought up the possibility of getting together, maybe for Thanksgiving. She thought it was a great idea. I think we both feel the need to explore being actual family.
I realize that our story is somewhat unique, but I have come to the conclusion that most families are complicated. And for almost everyone, the holidays bring all the drama and craziness to sparkling light. As we do each year, we will all navigate our actual families as best we can. We will cling to the hope that we can make it to the new year with only happy memories of the season.
Nah! That’s not going to happen.
Go order another pumpkin-spice latte, take a deep breath, and enjoy your actual family, however you define it, as best you can.
Let the festivities begin!